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posted on 18 February 2016

Rail Week Ending 13 February 2016: Contracting But Insignificant Short Term Improvement

Week 6 of 2016 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) only marginally declined according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. Intermodal traffic continued to improve year-over-year, which accounts for approximately half of movements but the weekly railcar counts remained 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 -5.7 % unchanged accelerating
13 week rolling average -8.8 % decelerating unchanged
52 week rolling average -3.5 % 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 Feb. 13, 2016.

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 505,148 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.8 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending Feb. 13 were 244,334 carloads, down 15.4 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 260,814 containers and trailers, up 10.4 percent compared to 2015.

Two of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2015. They were miscellaneous carloads, up 27.4 percent to 9,406 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, up 12.6 percent to 18,711 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2015 included coal, down 32.5 percent to 75,249 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 23.4 percent to 11,303 carloads; and metallic ores and metals, down 15.4 percent to 19,196 carloads.

For the first 6 weeks of 2016, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 1,454,056 carloads, down 15.6 percent from the same point last year; and 1,563,265 intermodal units, up 5.7 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 6 weeks of 2016 was 3,017,321 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 5.8 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 30.1 % 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 -15.4% +10.4 % -3.8 %
Ignoring coal and grain -7.8 %
Year Cumulative to Date -15.6% +5.7 % -5.8 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

From EIA.gov:

For the week ended February 6, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 12.9 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 5.4% lower than last week's estimate and 30.1% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2015
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 5.1 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 7.8 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 69.6 mmst, 32.1% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Steven Hansen



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