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posted on 22 April 2016

Rail Week Ending 16 April 2016: 4 Week Averages Improve But Data Remains Very Soft

Week 15 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). HOWEVER, one can ignore the strike which only affects intermodal - and concentrate on carloads - the data looks very soft.

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 -12.8% accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -7.5 % decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average -4.9 % 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 Apr. 16, 2016.

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 499,779 carloads and intermodal units, down 10.1 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending Apr. 16 were 240,462 carloads, down 12.9 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 259,317 containers and trailers, down 7.4 percent compared to 2015.

Five of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2015. They included miscellaneous carloads, up 22.8 percent to 9,823 carloads; grain, up 14.3 percent to 20,784 carloads; and chemicals, up 3.4 percent to 32,355 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2015 included coal, down 36.5 percent to 63,090 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 27.7 percent to 10,887 carloads; and forest products, down 7.5 percent to 9,963 carloads.

For the first 15 weeks of 2016, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 3,613,417 carloads, down 14.1 percent from the same point last year; and 3,848,344 intermodal units, up 0.2 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 15 weeks of 2016 was 7,461,761 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 7.3 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 43.4 % 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 -12.9 % -7.4 % -10.1 %
Ignoring coal and grain -6.5 %
Year Cumulative to Date -14.1 % +0.2% -7.3 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

For the week ended April 9, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 10.2 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 6.7% lower than last week's estimate and 43.4% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2015
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 3.9 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.3 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 178.5 mmst, 32.2% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Coal production from EIA.gov

Steven Hansen



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