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posted on 04 November 2016

Rail Week Ending 29 October 2016 - USA Coal Production Up From Last Year

Week 43 of 2016 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) contracted according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. The weekly data continues to improve.

Analyst Opinion of the Rail Data

We review this data set to understand the economy. If coal and grain are removed from the analysis, rail has recently been declining around 5% - but this week was -3.9%. This week the one year rolling average did improve - but it remains in contraction.

It does appear that the downward slide in the one year rolling average is in the processes of reversing.

The contraction in rail counts began over one year ago, and now rail movements are being compared against weaker 2015 data - and this is the cause periodic acceleration in the short term rolling averages. Still, rail is weak to very week compared to previous years.

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 -3.2 % unchanged accelerating
13 week rolling average -4.7 % accelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average -7.2 % decelerating 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 October 2016.

Carload traffic in October totaled 1,066,994 carloads, down 5.1 percent or 57,800 carloads from October 2015. U.S. railroads also originated 1,075,820 containers and trailers in October 2016, down 1.2 percent or 13,096 units from the same month last year. For October 2016, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,142,814, down 3.2 percent or 70,896 carloads and intermodal units from October 2015.

In October 2016, four of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with October 2015. These included: grain, up 6 percent or 6,014 carloads; waste and nonferrous scrap, up 9.9 percent or 1,349 carloads; and miscellaneous carloads, up 2.2 percent or 535 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in October 2016 from October 2015 included: coal, down 7.6 percent or 29,621 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 24 percent or 12,849 carloads; and chemicals, down 3.1 percent or 3,660 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were down 3.8 percent or 28,179 carloads in October 2016 from October 2015.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first 43 weeks of 2016 was 10,804,210 carloads, down 10 percent or 1,200,705 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 11,159,432 units, down 3 percent or 346,715 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2015. For the first ten months of 2016, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 21,963,642 carloads and intermodal units, down 6.6 percent or 1,547,420 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"Railroads continue to face a difficult macroeconomic environment that's negatively impacting their traffic volume," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "Grain is doing well and autos are hanging on, but many other commodity categories that depend on a vibrant industrial sector — things like steel, petroleum products, and crushed stone — are not doing as well as railroads would like. Hopefully that changes in the months ahead."

Week Ending October 29, 2016

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending October 29, 2016 was 544,997 carloads and intermodal units, down 0.8 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending October 29 were 271,576 carloads, down 2.8 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 273,421 containers and trailers, up 1.3 percent compared to 2015.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 2 % higher 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 -2.8 % +1.3 % -0.8 %
Ignoring coal and grain -3.9 %
Year Cumulative to Date -10.0 % -3.0 % -6.6 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

For the week ended October 29, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 17 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 3.3% higher than last week's estimate and 2% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2015
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.4 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 10.6 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 606.6 mmst, 20.3% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Coal production from EIA.gov

Steven Hansen



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