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posted on 07 April 2017

Rail Week Ending 01 April 2017: March Totals Up 5.5% Year-over-Year

Week 13 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. The data this year has big ups and downs but is now trending up.

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 +0.7 % (meaning that the predicitive economic elements insignificantly improved year-over-year). Also consider rail movements are below 2015 levels - even though they are above 2016 levels.

The rolling averages were trending up this week except the 13 week averages.

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 +6.6 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +3.6 % accelerating unchanged
52 week rolling average -2.6 % 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 April 1, 2017, as well as volumes for March 2017.

U.S. railroads originated 1,283,489 carloads in March 2017, up 7.3 percent, or 87,183 carloads, over March 2016. U.S. railroads also originated 1,298,173 containers and trailers in March 2017, up 3.8 percent, or 47,180 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in March 2017 were 2,581,662, up 5.5 percent or 134,363 carloads and intermodal units over March 2016.

In March 2017, 13 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with March 2016. These included: coal, up 19 percent or 63,846 carloads; crushed stone, gravel, and sand, up 12.5 percent or 13,154 carloads; and grain, up 10.6 percent or 11,336 carloads. Commodities that saw declines in March 2017 from March 2016 included: motor vehicles and parts, down 5.3 percent or 4,999 carloads; petroleum and petroleum products, down 8.1 percent or 4,382 carloads; and chemicals, down 1.3 percent or 2,113 carloads.

Excluding coal, carloads were up 2.7 percent, or 23,337 carloads, in March 2017 over March 2016.

"Railroading is not for the faint of heart, as markets are continually changing and railroads have to adapt to changing circumstances," said AAR Senior Vice President of Policy and Economics John T. Gray. "Despite recent increases, in absolute terms rail coal volumes are much lower than they were even a few years ago, and rail crude oil volumes are roughly half what they were a couple of years ago. On the other hand, this was the best March ever for carloads of crushed stone, sand, and gravel, and it was the best March for grain since 2008."

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first three months of 2017 was 3,324,102 carloads, up 5.7 percent, or 180,665 carloads, from the same period last year; and 3,387,680 intermodal units, up 1.4 percent, or 47,977 containers and trailers, from last year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 13 weeks of 2017 was 6,711,782 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 3.5 percent compared to last year.

"This was the best first quarter ever for U.S. railroad intermodal volume," said Gray. "Roughly half of intermodal is international trade, but it's not just intermodal that's associated with international trade. At least 42% of the carloads and intermodal units our nation's railroads carry, and more than 35% of rail revenue, are directly associated with international trade. Approximately 50,000 rail jobs, worth over $5.5 billion in annual wages and benefits, depend directly on international trade."

Week Ending April 1, 2017

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 527,665 carloads and intermodal units, up 7.2 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending April 1 were 259,720 carloads, up 9.1 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 267,945 containers and trailers, up 5.5 percent compared to 2016.

Four of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included coal, up 26.8 percent to 78,665 carloads; metallic ores and metals, up 14.6 percent to 24,379 carloads; and nonmetallic minerals, up 13 percent to 38,251 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 included petroleum and petroleum products, down 5.8 percent to 10,050 carloads; chemicals, down 5.6 percent to 32,210 carloads; and forest products, down 4.7 percent to 10,469 carloads.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 18.5 % 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 +9.1 % +5.5 % +7.2 %
Ignoring coal and grain +0.7 %
Year Cumulative to Date +5.7 % +1.4 % +3.5 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended April 1, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 14.5 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 0.2% higher than last week's estimate and 18.5% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 5.8 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 8.7 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 201.7 mmst, 15.5% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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