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posted on 20 January 2017

Rail Week Ending 14 January 2017: Some Improvement

Week 2 of 2017 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 declined 0.9 %.

The previous week's soft data may have been caused by a mismatch 2017 and 2016 - and this week improved marginally. The rolling averages improved.

It seems the improving trend line is still in play.

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 +4.9 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +1.5 % decelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average -4.9 % decelerating accelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) today reported U.S. rail traffic for the week ending January 14, 2017.

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 516,229 carloads and intermodal units, up 2 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending January 14 were 253,223 carloads, up 4.4 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 263,006 containers and trailers, down 0.3 percent compared to 2016.

Five of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included metallic ores and metals, up 17.6 percent to 21,979 carloads; miscellaneous carloads, up 17.3 percent to 9,895 carloads; and coal, up 13.3 percent to 85,133 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 included petroleum and petroleum products, down 14.7 percent to 10,960 carloads; forest products, down 5.8 percent to 9,492 carloads; and chemicals, down 5.8 percent to 29,864 carloads.

For the first two weeks of 2017, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 474,369 carloads, down 1.6 percent from the same point last year; and 483,277 intermodal units, down 7.5 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first two weeks of 2017 was 957,646 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 4.7 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 13.4 % 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 +4.4 % -0.3 % +2.0 %
Ignoring coal and grain -0.9 %
Year Cumulative to Date -1.6 % -7.5 % -4.7 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended January 14, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15.7 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 14.1% higher than last week's estimate and 13.4% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.3 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9.4 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 29.5 mmst, 9.2% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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