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posted on 05 May 2016

Rail Week Ending 30 April 2016: Rail Contracted 11.8 Percent From Same Month One Year Ago

Week 17 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 moved deeper into contraction.

The deceleration in the rail rolling averages began one year ago, and now rail movements are being compared against weaker 2015 data - and it continues to decline. 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 is 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 -11.8% accelerating decelerating
13 week rolling average -8.0 % decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average -5.4 % 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 April 2016.

Carload traffic in April totaled 944,339 carloads, down 16.1 percent or 180,598 from April 2015. U.S. railroads also originated 1,028,460 containers and trailers in April 2016, down 7.5 percent or 83,729 units from the same month last year. For April 2016, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 1,972,829, down 11.8 percent or 264,327 carloads and intermodal units from April 2015.

In April 2016, five of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with April 2015. These included: miscellaneous carloads, up 25 percent or 4,743 carloads; coke, up 16.1 percent or 2.354 carloads; and chemicals, up 1.5 percent or 1,909 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in April 2016 from April 2015 included: coal, down 39.7 percent or 160,624 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 25.1 percent or 15,122 carloads; and grain mill products, down 7.1 percent or 2,760 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 2.8 percent or 19,974 carloads from April 2015.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first 17 weeks of 2016 was 4,087,620 carloads, down 14.3 percent or 83,729 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 4,368,132 units, down 0.8 percent or 33,771 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2015. For the first four months of 2016, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 8,455,752 carloads and intermodal units, down 7.8 percent or 715,985 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"Rail coal traffic continues to suffer due to low natural gas prices and high coal stockpiles at power plants. Coal accounted for just 26 percent of non-intermodal rail traffic for U.S. railroads in April 2016, down from 36 percent in April 2015 and 45 percent as recently as late 2011," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "We expect non-coal carloads to strengthen when the economy gets stronger, and we think intermodal weakness in April is probably at least partly a function of high business inventories that need to be drawn down before new orders, and thus new shipments, are made."

Week Ending April 30, 2016

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending April 30, 2016 was 502,045 carloads and intermodal units, down 11.3 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending April 30 were 243,604 carloads, down 14.1 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 258,441 containers and trailers, down 8.6 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 12.7 percent to 10,204 carloads; grain, up 8.7 percent to 20,038 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, up 3.1 percent to 18,965 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2015 included coal, down 37 percent to 64,145 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 25.5 percent to 11,053 carloads; and forest products, down 13.1 percent to 10,025 carloads.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 38.7% 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 -14.1 % -8.6 % -11.3 %
Ignoring coal and grain -7.2 %
Year Cumulative to Date -14.3 % -0.8 % -7.8 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

For the week ended April 23, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 10.3 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 6.8% lower than last week's estimate and 38.7% 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 6.4 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 199.9 mmst, 32.8% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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