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posted on 05 February 2015

Rail Week Ending 31 January 2015: Strong First Month for 2015

Econintersect: Week 4 of 2015 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) improved according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. It was also reported that January 2015 rail traffic was higher than January 2014. Our analysis shows a strong first month of 2015 for rail movements.

This analysis is looking for clues in the rail data to show the direction of economic activity - and is not necessarily looking for clues of profitability of the railroads. The weekly data is fairly noisy, and the best way to view it is to look at the rolling averages which generally are in a general growth cycle.

Percent current rolling average is larger than the rolling average of one year ago Current quantities accelerating or decelerating Current rolling average accelerating or decelerating compared to the rolling average one year ago
4 week rolling average 7.8% accelerating decelerating
13 week rolling average 5.6% decelerating (normal for this period) unchanged
52 week rolling average 5.0% accelerating unchanged

A summary of the data from the AAR:

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) today reported increased U.S. rail traffic for January 2015, with both carload and intermodal volume increasing compared with January 2014.

For the first month of 2015, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,165,909 units, up 70,522 or 3.4 percent over January 2014. The average of 541,477 combined units per week in January 2015 was the second highest for a January on record, behind only January 2006.

U.S. freight railroads originated 1,160,842 carloads in January 2015, up 5.6 percent or 61,864 carloads over January 2014. Total carloads averaged 290,211 per week in January 2015, the most for January since 2008. For intermodal containers and trailers, U.S. railroads originated 1,005,067 units in January 2015, up 8,658 units or 0.9 percent over January 2014, and an average of 251,267 units per week, which is the highest weekly average for January in rail industry history.

In January 2015, 18 of the 20 carload commodity categories the AAR tracks saw carload gains compared with January 2014. Commodities with the biggest carload increases were coal, which was up by 19,078 carloads, or 4.4 percent over last year; crushed stone, gravel and sand, up 14,922 carloads, or 22.1 percent; grain, up 8,955 carloads, or 10.4 percent; chemicals, up 4,673 carloads, or 4 percent; and petroleum and petroleum products, up 3,981 carloads or 6.9 percent.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 42,786 carloads, or 6.4 percent in January 2015 over January 2014. Excluding coal and grain, U.S. rail carloads were up 33,831 carloads, or 5.8 percent in January 2015.

"January was a good start to the year for U.S. railroads, helped by the fact that the winter so far this year hasn't been nearly as bad as it was last year," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "The AAR recently estimated that U.S. railroads spent a record $27 billion on capital spending and maintenance expenses in 2014, and we're projecting $29 billion in 2015. This massive spending is making it possible for railroads to move their customers' freight more efficiently and reliably and steadily recover from 2014's service issues."

Week Ending Jan. 31, 2015 and North American Traffic

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending January 31, 2015 was 548,476 carloads and intermodal units, up 5.9 percent compared with the same week last year. For the week there were 298,568 carloads, up 10.2 percent compared with the same week in 2014, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 249,910 containers and trailers, up 1.1 percent compared to 2014.

Nine of the 10 carload commodity groups posted increases compared with the same week in 2014, led by nonmetallic minerals, up 18.4 percent to 31,725 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, up 17 percent to 15,503 carloads; and grain, up 15.7 percent to 24,225 carloads. The lone commodity group to post a decrease compared with the same week in 2014 was the category of miscellaneous carloads, down 10.7 per cent to 6,870 carloads for the one week.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 9.2% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2014. The middle row in the table below removes coal and grain from the changes in the railcar counts as neither of these commodities is economically intuitive.

This Week Carloads Intermodal Total
This week Year-over-Year 10.2% 1.1% 5.9%
Ignoring coal and grain 6.1%
Year Cumulative to Date 5.6% 0.9% 3.4%

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png


For the week ended January 31, 2015:

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 20.1 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 1.1% higher than last week's estimate and 9.2% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2014
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 8.4 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 11.7 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 85.8 mmst, 3.4% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2014

Steven Hansen

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