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posted on 07 April 2016

Rail Week Ending 02 April 2016: March Totals Down 11 Percent From One Year Ago

Week 13 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. All rolling averages are in decline.

The deceleration in the rail rolling averages began one year ago, and now rail movements are being compared against weaker 2015 data. There were port labor issues one year ago which affected intermodal movements - which skew the results both positively and negatively (this week again negatively as it is being compared to the shipping surge at the end of the strike).

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 -13.2% decelerating decelerating
13 week rolling average -6.6 % accelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average -4.5 % 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 March 2016.

Carload traffic in March totaled 1,196,167 carloads, down 14.2 percent or 198,737 from March 2015. U.S. railroads also originated 1,250,925 containers and trailers in March 2016, down 7.7 percent or 104,343 units from the same month last year. For March 2016, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,447,092, down 11 percent or 303,080 carloads and intermodal units from March 2015.

In March 2016, seven of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with March 2015. These included: chemicals, up 5.5 percent or 8,439 carloads; miscellaneous carloads, up 24.8 percent or 5,925 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, up 5.2 percent or 4,690 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in March 2016 from March 2015 included: coal, down 35.9 percent or 188,250 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 22.4 percent or 15,524 carloads; and metallic ores, down 27.1 percent or 7,281 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 1.2 percent or 10,487 carloads from March 2015.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first quarter of 2016 was 3,143,251 carloads, down 13.8 percent or 501,616 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 3,339,672 units, up 1.5 percent or 49,958 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2015. For the first quarter of 2016, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 6,482,923 carloads and intermodal units, down 6.5 percent or 451,658 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"Railroads are still looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, and for some commodities, including coal and other energy-related products, it's just not there yet," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "That said, most economist are calling for continued slow but steady economic growth for the U.S. in the months ahead. Railroads stand ready to provide the freight transportation service the economy will require."

Week Ending April 2, 2016

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending April 2, 2016 was 491,979 carloads and intermodal units, down 10.4 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending April 2 were 238,138 carloads, down 14.3 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 253,841 containers and trailers, down 6.4 percent compared to 2015.

Three of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2015. They included miscellaneous carloads, up 20.2 percent to 9,324 carloads; chemicals, up 12.1 percent to 34,131 carloads; and grain, up 4.3 percent to 21,761 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2015 were coal, down 39.2 percent to 62,256 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 24.6 percent to 10,670 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, down 3.2 percent to 17,330 carloads.

For the first 13 weeks of 2016, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 3,143,251 carloads, down 13.8 percent from the same point last year; and 3,339,672 intermodal units, up 1.5 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 13 weeks of 2016 was 6,482,923 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 6.5 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 37.9 % 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 -14.3 % -6.4 % -10.4 %
Ignoring coal and grain -6.4 %
Year Cumulative to Date -13.8 % +1.5 % -6.5 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

For the week ended April 2, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 11 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 5.4% lower than last week's estimate and 37.9% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2015
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 4.3 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.7 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 168.3 mmst, 31.5% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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