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posted on 03 June 2016

Rail Week Ending 28 May 2016: Have the Winds Changed?

Week 21 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. The year-over-year rolling averages improved for the first time in over one year - although the year-over-year rolling averages are deeply in negative territory.

The deceleration in the rail rolling averages began over one year ago, and now rail movements are being compared against weaker 2015 data.

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 -6.9 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -10.0 % decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average -5.8 % 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 May 2016.

Carload traffic in May totaled 962,571 carloads, down 10.3 percent or 110,678 from May 2015. U.S. railroads also originated 1,049,631 containers and trailers in May 2016, down 3.3 percent or 36,365 units from the same month last year. For May 2016, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,012,202, down 6.8 percent or 147,043 carloads and intermodal units from May 2015.

In May 2016, ten of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with May 2015. These included: miscellaneous carloads, up 30.8 percent or 5,854 carloads; crushed stone, gravel and sand, up 5.3 percent or 4,670 carloads; and chemicals, up 3.8 percent or 4,514 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in May 2016 from May 2015 included: coal, down 29.6 percent or 109,276 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 20.3 percent or 11,988 carloads; and metallic ores, down 12.9 percent or 3,701 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 29.6 percent or 259,735 carloads from May 2015.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first 21 weeks of 2016 was 5,050,191 carloads, down 13.6 percent or 792,892 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 5,417,763 units, down 1.3 percent or 70,136 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2015. For the first five months of 2016, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 10,467,954 carloads and intermodal units, down 7.6 percent or 863,028 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"Most economists think the economy has picked up in the second quarter from the dismal 0.8 percent growth in the first quarter, but so far railroads aren't seeing much of it," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "A variety of environmental and market forces continue to punish coal, and high business inventory levels and excess truck capacity, among other things, are pressuring rail intermodal volumes. Railroads are focusing on what they can control — providing safe, reliable service — while looking forward to the forces they can't control turning their way."

Week Ending May 28, 2016

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending May 28, 2016 was 513,917 carloads and intermodal units, up 1.9 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending May 28 were 246,881 carloads, down 4.1 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 267,036 containers and trailers, up 8 percent compared to 2015. Note: Traffic this week this year does not include Memorial Day. The comparable week last year does include Memorial Day. Therefore, this week's numbers are not a true reflection of rail traffic when 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 57 percent to 11,119 carloads; motor vehicles and parts, up 10.2 percent to 18,897 carloads; and nonmetallic minerals, up 9.3 percent to 35,410 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2015 were coal, down 25 percent to 65,832 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 13.9 percent to 12,258 carloads; and forest products, down 6.9 percent to 10,104 carloads.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week is 23.4 % 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 -4.1 % +8.0 % +1.9 %
Ignoring coal and grain +3.3 %
Year Cumulative to Date -13.8 % -1.3 % -7.6 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

For the week ended May 28, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 11.5 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 1.3% lower than last week's estimate and 23.4% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2015
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 4.4 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 7.1 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 256.7 mmst, 32.2% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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