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posted on 09 December 2016

Rail Week Ending 03 December 2016: Finally A Positive Month

Week 48 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. Long term rolling averages remain in contraction - but the 4 week rolling average remains in positive territory.

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 over the last 6 months been declining around 5% - but this week was 0.5 %. Still the growth is nothing to write home about.

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 +1.3 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -2.1 % accelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average -6.5 % accelerating 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 November 2016.

Carload traffic in November totaled 1,319,008 carloads, up 0.4 percent or 5,406 carloads from November 2015. U.S. railroads also originated 1,319,189 containers and trailers in November 2016, up 1.9 percent or 24,329 units from the same month last year. For November 2016, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,638,197, up 1.1 percent or 29,735 carloads and intermodal units from November 2015.

In November 2016, 11 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with November 2015. These included: grain, up 18.6 percent or 20,209 carloads; chemicals, up 1.9 percent or 2,829 carloads; and crushed stone, gravel, and sand, up 2.5 percent or 2,714 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in November 2016 from November 2015 included: petroleum and petroleum products, down 15.4 percent or 9,813 carloads; coal, down 2 percent or 9,282 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, down 3.5 percent or 3,134 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 1.7 percent or 14,688 carloads in November 2016 from November 2015.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first 48 weeks of 2016 was 12,123,218 carloads, down 9 percent or 1,195,299 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 12,478,621 units, down 2.5 percent or 322,386 containers and trailers when compared to the same period in 2015. For the first eleven months of 2016, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 24,601,839 carloads and intermodal units, down 5.8 percent or 1,517,685 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"There are glimmers of hope in rail traffic data in November, with carloads and intermodal totals both up over last year — something that hasn't happened for carloads in 22 months and for intermodal in nine months," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "Hopefully, these results are indicators of continuing future growth for the manufacturing economy, for trade, and for rail traffic. It appears that economic fundamentals are trending toward more positive results than have been seen in the recent past."

Week Ending December 3, 2016

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending December 3, 2016 53,130 carloads and intermodal units, up 2 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending December 3 were 274,329 carloads, up 0.9 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 278,801 containers and trailers, up 3.2 percent compared to 2015.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 1.1 % 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 +0.9 % +3.2 % +2.0 %
Ignoring coal and grain -2.3 %
Year Cumulative to Date -9.2 % -2.6 % -6.0 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

For the week ended December 3, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 16.3 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 7.4% higher than last week's estimate and 1.1% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2015
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.1 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 10.3 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 689 mmst, 18.1% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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