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posted on 02 April 2015

Rail Week Ending 28 March 2015: Month Ends with Contraction Year-over-Year

Econintersect: Week 12 of 2015 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) again declined according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. Intermodal traffic, which accounts for half of movements, is now strongly growing year-over-year - but weekly railcar counts remain in contraction. Rail traffic is surprisingly weak.

The AAR contibuted to this soft data by defining week 1 of 2015 as week 53 of 2014 which put comparable weeks one off the correct week.

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 weak 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 +1.9% accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +2.7% decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average +4.7% accelerating 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 March 2015 and first three months of 2015.

Carload traffic in March totaled 1,117,029 carloads, down 3.4 percent or 39,793 carloads from March 2014. U.S. railroads also originated 1,084,136 containers and trailers in March 2015, up 5.7 percent or 58,161 units from the same month last year. For March 2015, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,201,165, up 0.8 percent or 18,368 carloads and intermodal units over March 2014. The weekly average of 550,291 carloads and intermodal units was the most for March since 2007, prior to the start of the last recession, and 21.5 percent higher than the weekly average in March 2009.

In March 2015, eight of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with March 2014. This included grain, up 10.9 percent or 8,896 carloads; metallic ores, up 19.1 percent or 3,377 carloads; and crushed stone, sand and gravel, up 1.8 percent or 1,481 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in March 2015 from March 2014 included coal, down 6.9 percent or 31,205 carloads; primary metal products, down 16.2 percent or 6,756 carloads; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 7 percent or 4,170 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 1.2 percent or 8,588 carloads in March 2015 from March 2014 and when both coal and grain are excluded, U.S. carloads were down 2.8 percent or 17,484 carloads last month.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first three months of 2015 was 3,367,082 carloads, up 0.3 percent or 10,345 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 3,018,598 units, up 0.1 percent or 2,435 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2014. For the first quarter of 2015, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 6,385,680 carloads and intermodal units, up 0.2 percent or 12,780 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"Like other key economic indicators, rail traffic is presenting a mixed message," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "Rail intermodal traffic rebounded well in March, but many carload commodities did not. Coal is facing a number headwinds. There are risks going forward, to be sure, but for now we see no reason to think that the economy won't continue its recent pattern of relatively modest growth."

Week Ending March 28, 2015
Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending March 28, 2015 was 563,280 carloads and intermodal units, down 0.7 percent compared with the same week last year. For the week there were 284,935 carloads, down 5.6 percent compared with the same week in 2014, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 278,345 containers and trailers, up 5 percent compared to 2014.

Two of the 10 carload commodity groups tracked by the AAR each week posted increases compared with the same week in 2014, grain, up 3.5 percent to 22,776 carloads; and farm products, up 2.3 percent to 17,454 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases for this one week compared with the same week in 2014 were led by metallic ores and metals, down 12.6 percent to 21,195 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 10.9 percent to 13,788 carloads; and coal, down 9.1 percent to 106,484 carloads.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 10.0% 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 -5.6% +5.0% -0.7%
Ignoring coal and grain -4.3%
Year Cumulative to Date +0.3% +0.1% +0.2%

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png


For the week ended March 28, 2015:

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 18.3 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 0.5% higher than last week's estimate and 10.0% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2014
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 7.6 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 10.7 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 229.1 mmst, 3.4% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2014

Steven Hansen

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