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posted on 02 June 2017

Rail Week Ending 27 May 2017: Economically Intuitive Sectors Declined

Week 21 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 economically intuitive sectors contracted.

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 it contracted 3.7 % (meaning that the predicitive economic elements declined year-over-year). Also consider rail movements are below 2015 levels - even though they are above 2016 levels.

The following graph compares the rail economically intuitive sectors (red line) vs. total movements (blue line):

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 [including coal and grain] 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 +5.7% accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +5.5 % accelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average -0.3 % accelerating accelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 548,103 carloads and intermodal units, up 6.7 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending May 27 were 266,564 carloads, up 8 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 281,539 containers and trailers, up 5.4 percent compared to 2016.

Four of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included grain, up 26.9 percent to 24,740 carloads; coal, up 25.3 percent to 82,481 carloads; and nonmetallic minerals, up 11.4 percent to 39,421 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 included petroleum and petroleum products, down 19.7 percent to 9,857 carloads; miscellaneous carloads, down 6.7 percent to 10,365 carloads; and motor vehicles and parts, down 6.2 percent to 17,720 carloads.

For the first 21 weeks of 2017, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 5,380,624 carloads, up 6.5 percent from the same point last year; and 5,531,759 intermodal units, up 2.1 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 21 weeks of 2017 was 10,912,383 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 4.2 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 22 % 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 +8.0 % +5.4 % +6.7%
Ignoring coal and grain -3.7 %
Year Cumulative to Date +6.5 % +2.1 % +4.2 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended May 27, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 4.4% higher than last week's estimate and 22% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 314.3 mmst, 17.6% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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