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posted on 10 February 2017

Rail Week Ending 4 February 2017: Shows Little Real Economic Growth

Week 5 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 -0.1 % (meaning that the predicitive economic elements did not grow year-over-year).

The rolling averages improved - but that was due to coal and grain.

The overall 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 +5.1 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +3.1 % decelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average -4.2 % accelerating 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 February 4, 2017.

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 541,474 carloads and intermodal units, up 7.3 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending February 4 were 269,994 carloads, up 11.7 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 271,480 containers and trailers, up 3.3 percent compared to 2016.

Seven of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included coal, up 25.7 percent to 92,222 carloads; grain, up 15.7 percent to 25,741 carloads; and miscellaneous carloads, up 12.7 percent to 10,032 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 were petroleum and petroleum products, down 15.8 percent to 10,088 carloads; forest products, down 4.3 percent to 10,045 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, down 2.8 percent to 18,681 carloads.

For the first 5 weeks of 2017, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 1,266,567 carloads, up 4.7 percent from the same point last year; and 1,292,548 intermodal units, down 0.8 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 5 weeks of 2017 was 2,559,115 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 1.9 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 19.1 % 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 +11.7 % +3.3 % +7.3 %
Ignoring coal and grain -0.1 %
Year Cumulative to Date +4.7 % -0.8 % -+1.9 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended February 4, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 17 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 5.7% higher than last week's estimate and 19.1% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.8 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 10.2 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 79.4 mmst, 15.7% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from EIA.gov

Steven Hansen



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