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posted on 04 September 2015

Rail Week Ending 29 August 2015: Shows a Decline for the Month of August

Week 34 of 2015 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) declined according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. Intermodal traffic expanded year-over-year, which accounts for approximately half of movements. but weekly railcar counts continued in contraction. Total rail traffic for the month of August declined 0.8 %.

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 (carloads and intermodal combined).

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 -0.6 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -1.0 % accelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average +1.3 % 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 August 2015 and the first eight months of 2015.

Carload traffic in August totaled 1,155,957 carloads, down 4.6 percent or 56,104 carloads from August 2014. U.S. railroads also originated 1,114,370 containers and trailers in August 2015, up 3.6 percent or 38,617 units from the same month last year. For August 2015, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,270,327, down 0.8 percent or 17,487 carloads and intermodal units from August 2014.

In August 2015, six of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with August 2014. This included: miscellaneous, up 28 percent or 5,870 carloads; motor vehicles and parts, up 5.1 percent or 3,460 carloads; and grain mill products, up 6.5 percent or 2,322 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in August 2015 from August 2014 included: coal, down 7.3 percent or 33,624 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 13.9 percent or 9,078 carloads; and metallic ores, down 24.7 percent or 7,946 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 3 percent or 22,480 carloads in August 2015 from August 2014.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first eight months of 2015 was 9,462,936 carloads, down 4.3 percent or 423,230 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 9,051,287 units, up 2.6 percent or 233,597 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2014. For the first eight months of 2015, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 18,514,223 carloads and intermodal units, down 1 percent or 189,633 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"August had essentially the same rail traffic pattern as the previous few months: a healthy increase for intermodal, a big decline for coal, continued weakness in a variety of energy-related commodities, and strength in some other carload segments," said AAR Senior Vice President Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "Railroads are a derived-demand industry, meaning that demand for rail service is a function of demand downstream for the products railroads haul. We're optimistic that the economy will continue to grow. Demand for rail service should continue to grow with it."

Week Ending August 29, 2015

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending August 29, 2015 was 575,323 carloads and intermodal units, down 0.8 percent compared with the same week last year. For the week there were 290,792 carloads, down 5 percent compared with the same week in 2014, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 284,531 containers and trailers, up 4 percent compared to 2014. This represents the highest number for intermodal volume ever.

Three of the 10 carload commodity groups posted increases compared with the same week in 2014. They included: motor vehicles and parts, up 11.9 percent to 18,308; miscellaneous carloads, up 10.1 percent to 10,711 carloads; and farm products, up 0.2 percent to 16,127. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2014 included: metallic ores and metals, down 22.7 percent to 23,370 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 15.3 percent to 13,896 carloads; and grain, down 5.9 percent to 18,259 carloads.

North American rail volume for the week ending Aug. 29, 2015 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 383,184 carloads, down 5.9 percent compared with the same week last year, and 360,107 intermodal units, up 2.9 percent compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America, was 743,291 carloads and intermodal units, down 1.8 percent. North American rail volume for the first 34 weeks of 2015 was 24,134,296 carloads and intermodal units, down 0.5 percent compared with 2014.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 5.4 % 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 -5.0 % +4.0 % -0.8 %
Ignoring coal and grain -2.0 %
Year Cumulative to Date -4.3 % +2.6 % -1.0 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

From EIA.gov:

For the week ended August 29, 2015:

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 18.7 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 1.3% higher than last week's estimate and 4.5% 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 11.1 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 601.8 mmst, 8.5% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2014

Steven Hansen



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