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posted on 15 December 2017

Rail Week Ending 09 December 2017: Economic Predictive Elements At 3 Year High

Week 49 of 2017 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) expanded according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. The economically intuitive sectors remain in expansion and the rolling average growth rate improved.

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 5.5 % (meaning that the predictive economic elements improved year-over-year). The year-over-year growth rate of the predictive elements is at a three year high.

Intermodal transport again grew strongly year-over-year this week - which is the real economically positive element or rail transport.

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 +2.7 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +2.0 % accelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average +3.7 % accelerating accelerating

A summary of the data from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 560,756 carloads and intermodal units, up 4 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending December 9 were 267,963 carloads, up 3.4 percent compared with the same week in 2016, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 292,793 containers and trailers, up 4.6 percent compared to 2016.

Seven of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2016. They included nonmetallic minerals, up 3,011 carloads, to 35,630; chemicals, up 2,470 carloads, to 32,372; and metallic ores and metals, up 2,311 carloads, to 22,081. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2016 were motor vehicles and parts, down 1,492 carloads, to 17,589; grain, down 725 carloads, to 23,735; and miscellaneous carloads, down 400 carloads, to 8,919.

For the first 49 weeks of 2017, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 12,747,921 carloads, up 3 percent from the same point last year; and 13,238,662 intermodal units, up 3.8 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 49 weeks of 2017 was 25,986,583 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 3.4 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 0.4 % 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 +3.4 % +4.6 % +3.4 %
Ignoring coal and grain +5.5 %
Year Cumulative to Date +3.0 % +3.8 % +3.4 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended December 9, 2017

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15.5 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 1% lower than last week's estimate and 0.4% higher than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2016
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 5.9 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9.6 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 740 mmst, 8% higher than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2016

Coal production from

Steven Hansen

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