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posted on 12 March 2015

Rail Week Ending 07 March 2015: Weak Recovery Underway

Econintersect: Week 9 of 2015 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) barely improved according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. Intermodal traffic, which accounts for half of movements, finally began to grow year-over-year. A good portion of the intermodal decline was caused by labor issues at the West Coast Ports. The major headwind to carloads is a large decline in coal production - it does not explain all of the decline as rail traffic still appears very soft.

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 -3.0% accelerating decelerating
13 week rolling average +3.5% accelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average +4.8% decelerating decelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) today reported U.S. rail traffic for the week ending Mar. 7, 2015.

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 522,383 carloads and intermodal units, up 0.8 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending Mar. 7, 2015 were 268,620 carloads, down 2.1 percent compared with the same week in 2014, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 253,762 containers and trailers, up 4 percent compared to 2014.

Three of the 10 carload commodity groups posted increases compared with the same week in 2014. They were: grain, up 11.5 percent to 20,840 carloads; farm products, up 10.1 percent to17,496 carloads; and chemicals, up 2.7 percent, to 30,483 carloads. Commodity groups that saw decreases during this one week included: coal, down 6.5 percent to 101,837 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 4.1 percent to 14,187 carloads; and nonmetallic minerals, down 2.7 percent to 29,549 carloads.

For the first nine weeks of 2015, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 2,518,673 carloads, up 1.8 percent from the same point last year; and 2,188,224 intermodal units, down 2.1 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first nine weeks of 2015 was 4,706,897 carloads and intermodal units, with no percentage increase compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 7.9% 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 -2.1% +4.0% +0.8%
Ignoring coal and grain -1.0%
Year Cumulative to Date +1.8% -2.1% -0.0%

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png


For the week ended March 7, 2015:

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 17.5 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 2.3% higher than last week's estimate and 7.9% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2014
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 7.3 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 10.2 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 174.2 mmst, 1.8% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2014

Steven Hansen

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