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posted on 07 January 2016

Rail Week Ending 02 January 2016: In Contraction for the Week, Month, and Year

Week 52 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 marginally remained in expansion year-over-year, which accounts for approximately half of movements but the weekly railcar counts slipped further into 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 (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 -15.0 % decelerating decelerating
13 week rolling average -8.2 % decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average -2.4 % 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 December 2015 and all of 2015.

Carload traffic in December totaled 1,219,443 carloads, down 15.6 percent or 225,477 carloads from December 2014. U.S. railroads also originated 1,179,907 containers and trailers in December 2015, down 0.7 percent or 8,502 units from the same month last year. For December 2015, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,399,350, down 8.9 percent or 233,979 carloads and intermodal units from December 2014.

In December 2015, four of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with December 2014. This included: miscellaneous carloads, up 46.6 percent or 8,572 carloads; motor vehicles and parts, up 5.2 percent or 3,975 carloads; chemicals, up 0.7 percent or 963 carloads; and waste and scrap, up 3.3 percent or 510 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in December 2015 from December 2014 included: coal, down 27.9 percent or 81,625 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 20.5 percent or 16,240 carloads; and metallic ores, down 39.1 percent or 17,087 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 7.7 percent or 67,647 carloads in December 2015 from December 2014.

Total U.S. carload traffic for 2015 was 14,266,204 carloads, down 6.1 percent or 911,823 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 13,710,646 units, up 1.6 percent or 213,432 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2014. For 2015, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 27,976,850 carloads and intermodal units, down 2.5 percent or 698,391 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"Weaknesses in energy and manufacturing, as well as, world economic softening, had a negative impact on both carload and intermodal traffic in 2015," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "Railroads can't do much about the macroeconomic environment, but what they have done and are doing is making sure they operate safely and efficiently to maximize their customers' opportunities to grow their own business. The nation's railroads are well positioned to serve their customers in 2016."

Week Ending January 2, 2016

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending Jan. 2, 2016 was 395,663 carloads and intermodal units, down 11.3 percent compared with the same week last year. For the week there were 207,743 carloads, down 20.3 percent compared with the same week in 2014, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 187,920 containers and trailers, up 1.2 percent compared to 2014.

Two of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2014. They were miscellaneous carloads, up 16.9 percent to 6,271 carloads; and chemicals, up 3 percent to 29,307 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2014 included coal, down 35.3 percent to 67,002 carloads; metallic ores and metals, down 24.7 percent to 18,367 carloads; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 20.3 percent to 12,213 carloads.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 30.6 % 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 -20.3% +1.2 % -11.3 %
Ignoring coal and grain -10.9 %
Year Cumulative to Date -6.1 % +1.6 % -2.5 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png


For the week ended December 26, 2015

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 11.9 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 19.3% lower than last week's estimate and 30.6% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2014
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 4.7 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 7.2 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 882.1 mmst, 10.7% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2014

Steven Hansen

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