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posted on 03 February 2017

Rail Week Ending 28 January 2017: January 2017 Totals Up Insignificantly From January 2016

Week 4 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 shows 0.0 % (meaning that the predicitive economic elements did not grow year-over-year).

The rolling averages improved.

It seems the improving trend continues.

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 decelerating
13 week rolling average +1.5 % decelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average -4.9 % 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 January 2017.

Carload traffic in January totaled 996,573 carloads, up 2.9 percent or 28,341 carloads from January 2016. U.S. railroads also originated 1,021,068 containers and trailers in January 2017, down 1.8 percent or 18,553 units from the same month last year. For January 2017, combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations were 2,017,641, up 0.5 percent or 9,788 carloads and intermodal units from January 2016.

In January 2017, 9 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with January 2016. These included: coal, up 11.9 percent or 35,798 carloads; grain, up 5.2 percent or 4,570 carloads; and waste and nonferrous scrap, up 20.9 percent or 2,546 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in January 2017 from January 2016 included: petroleum and petroleum products, down 19.5 percent or 9,751 carloads; chemicals, down 3.6 percent or 4,456 carloads; and stone, clay and glass products, down 10.9 percent or 2,904 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were up down 1.1 percent or 7,457 carloads in January 2017 from January 2016.

"January rail traffic paints a mixed picture, with some commodities exceeding expectations, while others remained flat or down," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "For most of last year, coal carloads were down sharply, but for the past couple of months, including January, they've been the major force behind rail carload gains. We can probably expect continued uncertainty in energy markets going forward, but we're hopeful that improving macro-economic fundamentals will drive improvement in rail volumes for many commodity categories this year."

Week Ending January 28, 2017

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending January 28, 2017 was 529,696 carloads and intermodal units, up 3.3 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending January 28 were 259,708 carloads, up 4.3 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 269,988 containers and trailers, up 2.4 percent compared to 2016.

Five of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included coal, up 12.8 percent to 87,208 carloads; nonmetallic minerals, up 7.7 percent to 31,955 carloads; and metallic ores and metals, up 7.0 percent to 21,227 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 included petroleum and petroleum products, down 12.6 percent to 10,167 carloads; forest products, down 4.2 percent to 10,149 carloads; and chemicals, down 3.9 percent to 30,734 carloads.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 17.7 % higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016.

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 +10.7 % +2.5 % +8.1 %
Ignoring coal and grain +2.6 %
Year Cumulative to Date +2.5 % -3.2 % -0.5 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended January 28, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 16.1 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 3.9% lower than last week's estimate and 17.7% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.4 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9.7 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 62.4 mmst, 13.6% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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