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posted on 05 March 2016

Rail Week Ending 27 February 2016: Beginning To Show A Mixed Picture, Better Than A Negative One

Week 8 of 2016 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) improved 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. HOWEVER, February total carload and intermodal were positive for the first monthly positive reading in almost a year.

The deceleration in the rail rolling averages began one year ago, and now rail movements are being compared against weaker 2015 data. There was a port strike one year ago which affected intermodal movements - but the rolling averages are all accelerating including the one year rolling averages(which almost completely removes this anomaly).

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 +0.4 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -6.3 % accelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average -3.3 % accelerating accelerating

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 February 2016.

Carload traffic in February totaled 979,042 carloads, down 10.1 percent or 110,132 from February 2015. U.S. railroads also originated 1,049,126 containers and trailers in February 2016, up 12.9 percent or 119,778 units from the same month last year. Please note, in February 2015, intermodal volumes were severely affected by a labor dispute at West Coast ports. For February 2016, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,028,168, up 0.5 percent or 9,646 carloads and intermodal units from February 2015.

In February 2016, nine of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with February 2015. These included: motor vehicles and parts, up 19.4 percent or 12,573 carloads; miscellaneous carloads, up 30.6 percent or 5,345 carloads; and waste and nonferrous scrap, up 15.6 percent or 1,781 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in February 2016 from February 2015 included: coal, down 27.3 percent or 112,620 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 20.8 percent or 11,720 carloads; and metallic ores, down 25.3 percent or 4,944 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 0.4 percent or 2,488 carloads from February 2015.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first two months of 2016 was 1,947,084 carloads, down 13.5 percent or 302,879 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 2,088,747 units, up 8 percent or 154,301 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2015. For the first two months of 2016, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 4,035,831 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.6 percent or 148,578 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"The economy is still giving off a lot of mixed signals, and rail traffic is too. Coal carloads remain very troubling, intermodal is doing well, and the other rail traffic categories are somewhere in between," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "After Saudi announcements on energy pricing late last week it is painfully evident that it will take a while for the shakeout in that sector to play itself out. Until that happens, and until it becomes clear that the disruptions abroad aren't spreading into the domestic economy, rail traffic will remain in an uncertain environment."

Week Ending February 27, 2016

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending Feb. 27, 2016 was 521,300 carloads and intermodal units, up 2.5 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending Feb. 27 were 248,281 carloads, down 7.1 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 273,019 containers and trailers, up 13 percent compared to 2015.

Seven of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2015. They included miscellaneous carloads, up 28.3 percent to 9,323 carloads; motor vehicles and parts, up 11.7 percent to 19,792 carloads; and nonmetallic minerals, up 6.8 percent to 30,261 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2015 were coal, down 25.2 percent to 74,552 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 20.9 percent to 11,168 carloads; and forest products, down 1.1 percent to 10,794 carloads.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 30.2 % 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 -7.1 % +13.0 % +2.5 %
Ignoring coal and grain +0.1 %
Year Cumulative to Date -13.5 % +8.0 % -3.6 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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