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posted on 26 October 2017

Rail Week Ending 21 October 2017: Another Good Week for the Economically Intuitive Sectors

Week 42 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 improve and are in expansion,

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 4.2 % (meaning that the predicitive economic elements improved year-over-year). This week the one year rolling averages continue in expansion for the 21st week after contraction beginning in late 2015.

The strength this week continues to be intermodal 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 +3.4 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +2.3 % accelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average +3.6 % accelerating accelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 559,989 carloads and intermodal units, up 3 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending October 21 were 268,943 carloads, up 0.2 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 291,046 containers and trailers, up 5.6 percent compared to 2016 and the most for any week in history.

Five of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included nonmetallic minerals, up 3,839 carloads, to 41,227; metallic ores and metals, up 2,940 carloads, to 22,059; and chemicals, up 2,097 carloads, to 30,818. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 included coal, down 3,814 carloads, to 86,311; grain, down 2,422 carloads, to 24,018; and motor vehicles and parts, down 1,582 carloads, to 16,920.

For the first 42 weeks of 2017, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 10,909,100 carloads, up 3.6 percent from the same point last year; and 11,293,191 intermodal units, up 3.7 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 42 weeks of 2017 was 22,202,291 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 3.7 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 4.0 % 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 +0.2 % +5.6 % +3.0%
Ignoring coal and grain-0.4 +4.2 %
Year Cumulative to Date +3.6 % +3.7 % +3.7 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended October 21, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 14.9 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is about the same as last week's estimate and 1.3% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 5.6 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9.3 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 635.6 mmst, 10.4% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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