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posted on 05 March 2015

Rail Week Ending 28 February 2015: Two BAD Weeks In a Row. February Was a Bad Month.

Econintersect: Week 8 of 2015 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) again declined significantly according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. Intermodal traffic, which accounts for half of movements, continued to contract year-over-year. Part of the intermodal decline was caused by labor issues at the West Coast Ports, and another part was caused by a large decline in coal production - it does not explain much of the decline (you can always blame the weather).

The AAR contibuted to this drop by defining week 1 of 2015 as week 53 of 2014 which put comparable weeks one off the correct week. Still it is hard to tell if the labor issues at the West Coast Ports, coal production decline, the weather, and the comparable week being off one week explains all the decline.

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 -2.3% decelerating decelerating
13 week rolling average 4.4% decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average 4.9% decelerating decelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) today reported weekly U.S. rail traffic, as well as volumes for February 2015 and first two months of 2015.

Carload traffic in February totaled 1,089,211 carloads, down 1.1 percent or 11,726 carloads from February 2014. U.S. railroads originated 929,395 containers and trailers in February 2015, down 6.5 percent or 64,384 units from the same month last year. For February 2015, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,018,606, down 76,110 units or 3.6 percent from February 2014.

In February 2015, 11 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with February 2014. This included grain, up 8,651 carloads, or 10.9 percent over last year; crushed stone, gravel, and sand, up 4,640 carloads, or 6.5 percent; metallic ores, up 3,515 carloads, or 21.9 percent; and chemicals, up 2,436 carloads, or 2 percent. Commodities that saw declines in February 2015 from February 2014 included coal, down 21,075 carloads, or 4.9 percent; iron and steel scrap, down 3,943 carloads, or 23.1 percent; and primary metal products, down 2,926 carloads, or 7.3 percent.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 9,349 carloads or 1.4 percent in February 2015 over February 2014 and when coal and grain were excluded, U.S. carloads were up 698 carloads or 0.1 percent in February 2015.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first eight weeks of 2015 was 2,250,053 carloads, up 50,138 carloads or 2.3 percent, while intermodal containers and trailers were at 1,934,462 units, down 55,726 containers and trailers or 2.8 percent when compared to the same period in 2014. For the first two months of 2015, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 4,184,515 carloads and intermodal units, down 5,588 or 0.1 percent from the same point last year.

"The problems at West Coast ports clearly had an impact on rail traffic in February. Bad weather in the East and Midwest didn't help," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "It's not possible to quantify the impact of these factors precisely. However, economic fundamentals remain mostly positive, so railroads are expecting significant traffic improvements in March."

Week Ending Feb. 28, 2015
Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending February 28, 2015 was 508,658 carloads and intermodal units, down 6.7 percent compared with the same week last year. For the week there were 267,060 carloads, down 7 percent compared with the same week in 2014, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 241,598 containers and trailers, down 6.3 percent compared to 2014.

Three of the 10 carload commodity groups tracked by the AAR each week posted increases compared with the same week in 2014, led by petroleum and petroleum products, up 6.5 percent to 14,098 carloads; grain, up 3.8 percent to 20,537 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, up 2 percent to 17,713 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2014 were led by metallic ores and metals, down 13.2 percent to 20,716 carloads; coal, down 12.4 percent to 99,521 carloads; and nonmetallic minerals, down 10.9 percent to 28,336 carloads for the one week.

North American rail volume for the week ending Feb. 28, 2015 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 360,582 carloads, down 3.9 percent compared with the same week last year, and 309,091 intermodal units, down 4.3 percent compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America, was 669,673 carloads and intermodal units, down 4 percent. North American rail volume for the first eight weeks of 2015 was 5,470,264 carloads and intermodal units, up 1.6 percent compared with 2014.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 13.7% lower 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 -7.0% -6.3% -6.7%
Ignoring coal and grain -3.9%
Year Cumulative to Date 2.3% -2.8% -0.1%

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png


For the week ended February 28, 2015:

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 17.1 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 3.5% higher than last week's estimate and 13.7% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2014
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 7.1 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 10.0 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 156.7 mmst, 1.0% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2014

Steven Hansen

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