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posted on 06 October 2017

Rail Week Ending 30 September 2017: September Totals Up 0.7% From Month One Year Ago

Week 39 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 remain in contraction.

Analyst Opinion of the Rail Data

We review this data set to understand the economy. If coal and grain are removed from the analysis, this week it improved 1.6 % (meaning that the predicitive economic elements improved year-over-year). This week the one year rolling averages continue in expansion for the 18th week after contraction beginning in late 2015.

The strength this week again was intermodal - which is economically positive (and is contrary to the slowness of the economically intuitive carload counts).

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.

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 +0.8 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +2.0 % accelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average +3.1 % accelerating accelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

U.S. railroads originated 1,044,563 carloads in September 2017, down 2.3 percent, or -24,106 carloads, from September 2016. U.S. railroads also originated 1,080,444 containers and trailers in September 2017, up 3.8 percent, or 39,482 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in September 2017 were 2,125,007, up 0.7 percent, or 15,376 carloads and intermodal units from September 2016.

In September 2017, eight of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with September 2016. These included: crushed stone, sand & gravel, up 8,845 carloads or 9.3 percent; primary metal products, up 3,877 carloads or 11.8 percent; and metallic ores, up 3,163 carloads or 13.6 percent. Commodities that saw declines in September 2017 from September 2016 included: grain, down 16,329 carloads or 16.7 percent; petroleum & petroleum products, down 7,267 carloads or 17.0 percent; and motor vehicles & parts, down 7,203 carloads or 9.8 percent.

"As our economy and population grow, consumer spending will grow too, and intermodal will continue to be the best way to get many goods to consumers," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "The last two weeks of September were the top two intermodal weeks in history for U.S. and Canadian railroads. We're confident that the tremendous efforts railroads have been expending in recent years to improve service and enhance capacity will translate into continued intermodal gains."

Excluding coal, carloads were down 21,257 carloads, or 3.0 percent, in September 2017 from September 2016. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down 4,928 carloads, or 0.8 percent.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first nine months of 2017 was 10,106,660 carloads, up 3.8 percent, or 369,322 carloads, from the same period last year; and 10,432,552 intermodal units, up 3.5 percent, or 348,784 containers and trailers, from last year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 39 weeks of 2017 was 20,539,212 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 3.6 percent compared to last year.

Week Ending September 30, 2017

For a second straight week, the U.S. set a new weekly record for intermodal rail traffic. Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 559,555 carloads and intermodal units, up 1.9 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending September 30 were 272,662 carloads, down 1.6 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 286,893 containers and trailers, up 5.5 percent compared to 2016.

Five of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included nonmetallic minerals, up 4,739 carloads, to 40,970; metallic ores and metals, up 1,387 carloads, to 23,956; and forest products, up 556 carloads, to 11,054. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 included grain, down 3,993 carloads, to 23,630; coal, down 3,781 carloads, to 88,150; and motor vehicles and parts, down 2,297 carloads, to 17,461.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 2.7% lower 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 -1.6 % +5.5 % +1.9 %
Ignoring coal and grain-0.4 +1.7 %
Year Cumulative to Date +3.8 % +3.5 % +3.6 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended September 30, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15.3 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 4.4% higher than last week's estimate and 2.7% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 5.7 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9.6 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 593.7 mmst, 12.3% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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