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posted on 06 August 2015

Rail Week Ending 01 August 2015: Traffic Down 1.8% in July

Econintersect: Week 30 of 2015 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) contracted according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. Intermodal traffic contracted year-over-year, which accounts for approximately half of movements. and weekly railcar counts continued 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 are in contraction for over three months. The following chart is for railcar counts (not including intermodal).

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 +0.8 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -2.3 % decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average +1.7 % 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 July 2015 and the first seven months of 2015.

Carload traffic in July totaled 1,376,411 carloads, down 6.5 percent or 95,295 carloads from July 2014. U.S. railroads also originated 1,331,888 containers and trailers in July 2015, up 3.5 percent or 45,538 units from the same month last year. For July 2015, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,708,299, down 1.8 percent or 49,757 carloads and intermodal units from July 2014.

In July 2015, six of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with July 2014. This included: grain, up 6.2 percent or 5,921 carloads; crushed stone, sand, and gravel, up 1 percent or 1,227 carloads; and coke, up 6.1 percent or 1,176 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in July 2015 from July 2014 included: coal, down 12.5 percent or 69,519 carloads, petroleum and petroleum products, down 13.6 percent or 10,691 carloads; and primary metal products, down 13 percent or 7,167 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 2.8 percent or 25,776 carloads in July 2015 from July 2014.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first seven months of 2015 was 8,306,979 carloads, down 4.2 percent or 367,126 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 7,936,917 units, up 2.5 percent or 194,980 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2014. For the first seven months of 2015, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 16,243,896 carloads and intermodal units, down 1 percent or 172,146 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"Railroads are overexposed, relative to the economy in general, to the energy sector. Put another way, changes in the energy sector are having a bigger effect on rail traffic than they are on the economy as a whole," said AAR Senior Vice President Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "For that reason, we don't think declines in overall rail carloads in recent months are necessarily reflective of fundamental weakness in the broader economy."

Week Ending August 1, 2015

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending August 1, 2015 was 559,125 carloads and intermodal units, down 2.7 percent compared with the same week last year. For the week there were 289,657 carloads, down 4.8 percent compared with the same week in 2014, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 269,468 containers and trailers, down 0.3 percent compared to 2014.

Four of the 10 carload commodity groups posted increases compared with the same week in 2014. They included: miscellaneous carloads, up 14.5 percent to 9,285 carloads; grain, up 10.4 percent to 21,402; and motor vehicles and parts, up 4.4 percent to 18,544. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2014 included: petroleum and petroleum products, down 13.4 percent to 13,847 carloads; coal, down 11.8 percent to 102,999 carloads; and metallic ores and metals, down 6.9 percent to 25,964 carloads.

North American rail volume for the week ending August 1, 2015 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 383,764 carloads, down 4.7 percent compared with the same week last year, and 340,943 intermodal units, down 0.5 percent compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America, was 724,707 carloads and intermodal units, down 2.8 percent. North American rail volume for the first 30 weeks of 2015 was 21,200,793 carloads and intermodal units, down 0.4 percent compared with 2014.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 11.8% 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 % -0.3 % -2.7 %
Ignoring coal and grain -2.4 %
Year Cumulative to Date -4.2 % +2.5 % -1.0 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

From EIA.gov:

For the week ended August 1, 2015:

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 17.7 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 0.6% lower than last week's estimate and 11.8% 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 10.5 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 528.1 mmst, 8.7% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2014

Steven Hansen



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