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posted on 02 February 2018

Rail Week Ending 27 January 2018: Finally A Good Week

Week 4 of 2018 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) improved according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. The rolling averages for 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 expanded 2.5 %. We primarily use rolling averages the analyze the data due to weekly volatility.

Intermodal transport strongly expanded 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):

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 -1.8 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +1.2 % decelerating accelerating
52 week rolling average +3.2 % accelerating unchanged

A summary of the data from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 543,515 carloads and intermodal units, up 4 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending January 27 were 260,993 carloads, up 1.1 percent compared with the same week in 2017, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 282,522 containers and trailers, up 6.9 percent compared to 2017.​​

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2017. They included nonmetallic minerals, up 2,021 carloads, to 32,672; petroleum and petroleum products, up 1,356 carloads, to 11,506; and miscellaneous carloads, up 639 carloads, to 10,964. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2017 included motor vehicles and parts, down 1,084 carloads, to 17,729; coal, down 588 carloads, to 86,586; and farm products excl. grain, and food, down 265 carloads, to 15,960.

For the first four weeks of 2018, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 952,248 carloads, down 3.9 percent from the same point last year; and 1,027,305 intermodal units, up 2.7 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first four weeks of 2018 was 1,979,553 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 0.6 percent compared to last year.

Coal is over 1/3 of the total railcar count, and this week the EIA says coal production is 3.2 % lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2017.

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 +1.1 % +6.9 % +4.0 %
Ignoring coal and grain +2.5 %
Year Cumulative to Date -3.9 % +2.7 % -0.6 %

[click on graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

For the week ended January 27, 2018

  • Estimated U.S. coal production totaled approximately 15.3 million short tons (mmst)
  • This production estimate is 4.7% higher than last week's estimate and 3.2% lower than the production estimate in the comparable week in 2017
  • East of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 6.2 mmst
  • West of the Mississippi River coal production totaled 9.2 mmst
  • U.S. year-to-date coal production totaled 54.1 mmst, 8.8% lower than the comparable year-to-date coal production in 2017

Steven Hansen



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