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posted on 30 June 2017

Rail Week Ending 24 June 2017: Economically Intuitive Sectors Slow

Week 25 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 slowed.

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 declined 2.1 % (meaning that the predicitive economic elements declined 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 fourth week after contraction beginning in late 2015.

The following graph compares the four week moving averages for the rail economically intuitive sectors (red line) vs. total movements (blue line): Rail's intuitive sectors have been bouncing around the zero growth line for most of 2017 but have recently moved above the zero growth 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 +6.2 % unchanged decelerating
13 week rolling average +5.8 % accelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average +0.9 % accelerating accelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 544,694 carloads and intermodal units, up 3.6 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending June 24 were 263,504 carloads, up 2.3 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 281,190 containers and trailers, up 4.9 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 11.2 percent to 85,975 carloads; nonmetallic minerals, up 10.4 percent to 39,632 carloads; and chemicals, up 2.2 percent to 30,391 carloads. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 included petroleum and petroleum products, down 16 percent to 9,789 carloads; motor vehicles and parts, down 12.1 percent to 16,997 carloads; and metallic ores and metals, down 8.5 percent to 22,522 carloads.

For the first 25 weeks of 2017, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 6,429,100 carloads, up 6.6 percent from the same point last year; and 6,616,665 intermodal units, up 2.6 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 25 weeks of 2017 was 13,045,765 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 4.5 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 12.2 % 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 +2.3 % +4.9 % +3.6 %
Ignoring coal and grain -2.1 %
Year Cumulative to Date +6.6 % +2.6 % +4.5 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended June 24, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15.6 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 1.3% lower than last week's estimate and 12.2% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.2 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9.3 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 376.2 mmst, 17.1% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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