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posted on 07 May 2015

Rail Week Ending 02 May 2015: Data Improves But It Is Still Not Pretty. Month of April 2015 Rail Movements Contracted.

Econintersect: Week 17 of 2015 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) insignificantly improved according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. Intermodal traffic improved, which accounts for half of movements - but weekly railcar counts continue in contraction.

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 +1.8% accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -0.3% accelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average +3.8% unchanged 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 April 2015 and the first four months of 2015.

Carload traffic in April totaled 1,403,044 carloads, down 5.3 percent or 78,712 carloads from April 2014. U.S. railroads also originated 1,383,314 containers and trailers in April 2015, up 5.1 percent or 67,153 units from the same month last year. For April 2015, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,786,358, down 0.4 percent or 11,559 carloads and intermodal units from April 2014.

In April 2015, just five of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with April 2014. This included metallic ores, up 43.3 percent or 9,838 carloads; grain mill products, up 2.3 percent or 1,124 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, up 0.8 percent or 733 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in April 2015 from April 2014 included coal, down 11.1 percent or 63,306 carloads; primary metal products, down 16.9 percent or 9,256 carloads; and grain, down 3.7 percent or 3,910 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 1.7 percent or 15,406 carloads in April 2015 from April 2014 and when both coal and grain are excluded, U.S. carloads were down 1.4 percent or 11,496 carloads last month.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first four months of 2015 was 4,770,126 carloads, down 1.4 percent or 68,367 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 4,401,912 units, up 1.6 percent or 69,588 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2014. For the first four months of 2015, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 9,172,038 carloads and intermodal units, up 0.01 percent or 1,221 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"The federal government recently announced that its initial estimate of first quarter GDP growth was just 0.2 percent. Based on rail traffic in April, we aren't seeing a surge in economic activity to start the second quarter," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "Railroad coal traffic is suffering from reduced electricity generation from coal and lower coal exports, while rail volumes for a number of other commodities are down due to general economic weakness. We hope that turns around. Intermodal, on the other hand, is doing very well, as large intermodal-related investments and service improvements are paying off with record volumes."

Week Ending May 2, 2015

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending May 2, 2015 was 565,787 carloads and intermodal units, up 0.2 percent compared with the same week last year. For the week there were 283,091 carloads, down 4.8 percent compared with the same week in 2014, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 282,696 containers and trailers, up 5.7 percent compared to 2014.

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted increases compared with the same week in 2014. They were: miscellaneous carloads, up 7.9 percent to 9,055 carloads; farm products and food, up 2.6 percent to 17,060; and chemicals, up 2.1 percent to 32,011. Commodity groups that saw decreases during this one week included: grain, down 12.6 percent to 18,437 carloads; coal, down 9.6 percent to 101,495 carloads; and nonmetallic minerals, down 6.6 percent to 35,312 carloads.

North American rail volume for the week ending May 2, 2015 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 378,592 carloads, down 5 percent compared with the same week last year, and 355,835 intermodal units, up 5.1 percent compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 734,427 carloads and intermodal units, down 0.4 percent. North American rail volume for the first 17 weeks of 2015 was 11,961,834 carloads and intermodal units, up 1.2 percent compared with 2014.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 8.6% 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 -4.8% +5.7% +0.2%
Ignoring coal and grain -0.9%
Year Cumulative to Date -1.4% +1.6% +0.0%

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

From EIA.gov:

For the week ended May 2, 2015:

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 17.4 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 3.2% higher than last week's estimate and 8.6% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2014
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 7.2 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 10.0 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 315.7 mmst, 5.4% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2014

Steven Hansen



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