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posted on 10 November 2017

Rail Week Ending 04 November 2017: Headline View In Contraction

Week 44 of 2017 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) contracted according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. The economically intuitive sectors remain in expansion but growth 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, this week it improved 3.6 % (meaning that the predicitive economic elements improved year-over-year). This week the one year rolling averages continue in expansion for the 23rd week after contraction beginning in late 2015 - but decelerated this week.

Intermodal transport did not grow year-over-year this week.

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 +1.3 % decelerating decelerating
13 week rolling average +1.7 % decelerating decelerating
52 week rolling average +3.5 % accelerating decelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 538,739 carloads and intermodal units, down 0.8 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending November 4 were 266,652 carloads, down 1.7 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 272,087 containers and trailers, up 0.01 percent compared to 2016.

Five of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included metallic ores and metals, up 4,176 carloads, to 22,716; nonmetallic minerals, up 2,411 carloads, to 38,980; and chemicals, up 1,797 carloads, to 31,552. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 included coal, down 6,003 carloads, to 86,843; grain, down 5,376 carloads, to 23,281; and petroleum and petroleum products, down 1,216 carloads, to 9,665.

For the first 44 weeks of 2017, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 11,439,089 carloads, up 3.3 percent from the same point last year; and 11,848,796 intermodal units, up 3.6 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 44 weeks of 2017 was 23,287,885 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 3.5 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 6.7 % 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 -1.7 % +0.0 % -0.8%
Ignoring coal and grain +3.6 %
Year Cumulative to Date +3.3 % +3.6 % +3.6%

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended November 4, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 3.9% higher than last week's estimate and 6.7% lower 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 9.3 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 665 mmst, 9.5% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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