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posted on 04 February 2016

Rail Week Ending 30 January 2016: Contraction Continues But With a Short Term Improvement

Week 4 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 improved year-over-year, which accounts for approximately half of movements but 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 -7.3 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -9.3 % decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average -3.5 % decelerating decelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) today reported weekly U.S. traffic, as well as volumes for January 2016.

Carload traffic in January totaled 968,042 carloads, down 16.6 percent or 192,747 from January 2015. U.S. railroads also originated 1,039,621 containers and trailers in January 2016, up 3.4 percent or 34,523 units from the same month last year. For January 2016, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,007,663 down 7.3 percent or 158,224 carloads and intermodal units from January 2015.

In January 2016, four of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with January 2015. This included: miscellaneous carloads, up 45.2 percent or 7,409 carloads; chemicals, up 2.1 percent or 2,615 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, up 3.9 percent or 2,435 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in January 2016 from January 2015 included: coal, down 33.3 percent or 150,658 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 19.4 percent or 12,037 carloads; and crushed stone, gravel, and sand, down 10.3 percent or 8,475 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 5.9 percent or 42,089 carloads from January 2015.

"Intermodal was solid in January, but carload volumes weren't what railroads were hoping for," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "By all accounts, rail service right now is excellent, but volume just isn't there. At some point, the problems currently plaguing the energy and manufacturing sectors — low oil prices, a strong dollar, uncertainties in emerging ​markets — will sort themselves out. When that happens, railroads will be positioned to provide safe, reliable service."

Week Ending January 30, 2016

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending Jan. 30, 2016 was 512,746 carloads and intermodal units, down 6.5 percent compared with the same week last year. For the week, there were 248,961 carloads, down 16.6 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 263,785 containers and trailers, up 5.5 percent compared to 2015.

Three of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2015. They were miscellaneous carloads, up 45.9 percent to 10,019 carloads; motor vehicles and parts, up 5.8 percent to 18,556 carloads; and chemicals, up 2.8 percent to 31,981 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2015 included coal, down 33.8 percent to 77,416 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 24.9 percent to 11,626 carloads; and metallic ores and metals, down 19.1 percent to 19,826 carloads.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 35.3 % 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 -16.6% +5.5 % -6.5 %
Ignoring coal and grain -8.5 %
Year Cumulative to Date -16.6 % +3.4 % -7.3 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png


For the week ended January 23, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 13.1 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 2% lower than last week's estimate and 35.3% 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 7.9 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 43.1 mmst, 32.1% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Steven Hansen

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