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posted on 06 January 2017

Rail Week Ending 31 December 2016: Rail Down 5% for the Year

Week 51 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.

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 improved 4.2%.

This week's data is a slight outlier caused by week 52 this year being entirely between Christmas and New Years (a low volume period) - and last year week 52's beginning was before Christmas (included some higher volume days). But the monthly data would be little affected and it is expanding.

The question is: Is the year long contraction in rail over? It may be.

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 +0.3 % decelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average -1.4 % decelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average -6.2 % 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 December 2016 and all of 2016.

Carload traffic in December totaled 973,642 carloads, up 2.8 percent or 26,147 carloads from December 2015. U.S. railroads also originated 1,011,870 containers and trailers in December 2016, up 11.2 percent or 102,215 units from the same month last year. For December 2016, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 1,985,512, up 6.9 percent or 128,362 carloads and intermodal units from December 2015.

In December 2016, 13 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with December 2015. These included: coal, up 4.2 percent or 13,360 carloads; grain, up 10.5 percent or 8,663 carloads; and chemicals, up 3.9 percent or 4,599 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in December 2016 from December 2015 included: petroleum and petroleum products, down 17.4 percent or 8,568 carloads; crushed stone, gravel and sand, down 4.1 percent or 2,889 carloads; and miscellaneous carloads, down 5.9 percent or 1,265 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 2 percent or 12,787 carloads in December 2016 from December 2015.

Total U.S. carload traffic for 2016 was 13,096,860 carloads, down 8.2 percent or 1,169,152 carloads, while intermodal containers and trailers were 13,490,491 units, down 1.6 percent or 220,171 containers and trailers when compared to 2015. In 2016, total rail traffic volume in the United States was 26,587,351 carloads and intermodal units, down 5 percent or 1,389,323 carloads and intermodal units from the same point last year.

"Last year was challenging for freight railroads," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "Rail carloads were down for the second consecutive year, due mainly to a weak manufacturing economy and turmoil in energy markets, while intermodal failed to set its fourth straight annual record. That said, there are signs that the economy may be gradually returning to a period of growth."

Week Ending December 31, 2016

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending December 31, 2016 was 425,998 carloads and intermodal units, up 7.7 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending December 31 were 215,967 carloads, up 4 percent compared with the same week in 2015, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 210,031 containers and trailers, up 11.8 percent compared to 2015.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 27.7 % 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 +4.0 % +11.8 % +7.7 %
Ignoring coal and grain +4.2 %
Year Cumulative to Date -8.2 % -1.6 % -5.0 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

Current Rail Chart:

z rail1.png

For the week ended December 31, 2016

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15.2 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 3.1% lower than last week's estimate and 27.7% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2015
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 5.8 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9.4 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 726.3 mmst, 18% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2015

Coal production from EIA.gov

Steven Hansen



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