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posted on 28 January 2016

Rail Week Ending 23 January 2016: Contraction Continues

Week 3 of 2016 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 is now in contraction year-over-year, which accounts for approximately half of movements and the weekly railcar counts remained deeply 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 (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 -7.8 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -9.2 % decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average -3.3 % decelerating decelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) today reported U.S. rail traffic for the week ending Jan. 23, 2016.

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 490,324 carloads and intermodal units, down 10.5 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending Jan. 23 were 237,190 carloads, down 19.5 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 253,134 containers and trailers, down 0.1 percent compared to 2015.

One of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2015. It was miscellaneous carloads, up 15.3 percent to 9,018 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2015 included coal, down 35.8 percent to 74,128 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 19 percent to 12,409 carloads; and metallic ores and metals, down 16.2 percent to 19,418 carloads.

For the first 3 weeks of 2016, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 719,081 carloads, down 16.6 percent from the same point last year; and 775,836 intermodal units, up 2.7 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 3 weeks of 2016 was 1,494,917 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 7.6 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 32.1 % lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2015. 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 -19.5% -0.1 % -10.5 %
Ignoring coal and grain -11.0 %
Year Cumulative to Date -16.6 % +2.7 % -7.6 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

From EIA.gov:

For the week ended January 16, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 13.3 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 0.6% lower than last week's estimate and 32.1% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2015
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 5.2 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 8.1 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 30.1 mmst, 30.7% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Steven Hansen



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