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posted on 23 June 2017

Rail Week Ending 17 June 2017: Economically Intuitive Sectors Expansion Growing

Week 24 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 expanded.

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 expanded 2.8 % (meaning that the predicitive economic elements improved year-over-year). Also consider total rail movements are below 2015 levels - even though they are above 2016 levels. This week the one year rolling averages continue in expansion for the third week after contraction beginning in late 2015.

The following graph compares the rail economically intuitive sectors (red line) vs. total movements (blue line) which is in public territory: Rail's intuitive sectors have been bouncing around the zero growth line for most of 2017.

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 +7.0 % accelerating decelerating
13 week rolling average +6.4 % accelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average +0.7 % accelerating accelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 543,179 carloads and intermodal units, up 5.2 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending June 17 were 266,402 carloads, up 6.2 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 276,777 containers and trailers, up 4.3 percent compared to 2016.

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included nonmetallic minerals, up 15.5 percent to 39,654 carloads; coal, up 15.1 percent to 87,066 carloads; and chemicals, up 5.7 percent to 31,288 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 included petroleum and petroleum products, down 12.4 percent to 9,326 carloads; motor vehicles and parts, down 8.1 percent to 17,189 carloads; and grain, down 4.6 percent to 21,677 carloads.

For the first 24 weeks of 2017, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 6,165,596 carloads, up 6.8 percent from the same point last year; and 6,335,475 intermodal units, up 2.5 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 24 weeks of 2017 was 12,501,071 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 4.6 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 17.2 % 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 +6.2 % +4.3 % +5.2%
Ignoring coal and grain +2.9 %
Year Cumulative to Date +6.8 % +2.5 % +4.6 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended June 17, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15.8 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 1.8% higher than last week's estimate and 17.2% 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 9.5 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 360.6 mmst, 17.5% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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