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posted on 06 February 2020

Rail Week Ending 01 February 2020 - Intuitive Sectors Again Improve And This Week Are Finally In Expansion

Written by Steven Hansen

Week 5 of 2020 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) expanded according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. Total rail traffic has been in contraction for the last year. The intuitive sectors this week also improved and are now also in expansion.

Analyst Opinion of the Rail Data

We review this data set to understand the economy. The intuitive sectors (total carloads removing coal, grain, and petroleum) expanded 4.7 % year-over-year for this week. We primarily use rolling averages to analyze the intuitive data due to weekly volatility - and the 4 week rolling year-over-year average for the intuitive sectors improved from -3.4 % to -1.1 %.

When rail contracts, it suggests a slowing of the economy.

The following graph compares the four-week moving averages for carload economically intuitive sectors (red line) vs. total movements (blue line):

.

Intermodal transport (containers or trailers on rail cars) growth was weak and in contraction in 2019. Beginning this month intermodal is in expansion.

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 the 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 change from the rolling average of one year ago Trend Direction
4 week rolling average -5.8 % improving
13 week rolling average -7.4 % improving
52 week rolling average -5.6 % improving

A summary for this week from the AAR:

U.S. railroads originated 1,165,733 carloads in January 2020, down 5.9 percent, or 73,110 carloads, from January 2019. U.S. railroads also originated 1,245,080 containers and trailers in January 2020, down 5.4 percent, or 71,081 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in January 2020 were 2,410,813, down 5.6 percent, or 144,191 carloads and intermodal units from January 2019.

In January 2020, nine of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with January 2019. These included: chemicals, up 3,276 carloads or 2.1 percent; all other carloads, up 2,558 carloads or 9.2 percent; and grain mill products, up 1,583 carloads or 3.6 percent. Commodities that saw declines in January 2020 from January 2019 included: coal, down 55,882 carloads or 13.8 percent; grain, down 12,908 carloads or 11.6 percent; and crushed stone, sand & gravel, down 4,973 carloads or 5.3 percent.

"U.S. rail volumes fell again in January, reflecting continued softness in manufacturing and global economic weakness made worse by trade uncertainties," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "But there were glimmers of hope. Nine of the 20 carload categories we track had year-over-year gains in January, the most in a year, and several other commodities had carload declines in January that were less pronounced than they've been in recent months. It's too early to say if the worst is behind us, but railroads are hopeful that 2020 will see an improved business climate and rising volumes across much of their traffic base."

Excluding coal, carloads were down 17,228 carloads, or 2.1 percent, in January 2020 from January 2019. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were down 4,320 carloads, or 0.6 percent.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first month of 2020 was 1,165,733 carloads, down 5.9 percent, or 73,110 carloads, from the same period last year; and 1,245,080 intermodal units, down 5.4 percent, or 71,081 containers and trailers, from last year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first five weeks of 2020 was 2,410,813 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 5.6 percent compared to last year.

Week Ending February 1, 2020

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 510,161 carloads and intermodal units, up 2.4 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending February 1 were 241,339 carloads, down 0.6 percent compared with the same week in 2019, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 268,822 containers and trailers, up 5.2 percent compared to 2019.

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2019. They included metallic ores and metals, up 3,636 carloads, to 22,591; motor vehicles and parts, up 1,585 carloads, to 16,909; and farm products excl. grain, and food, up 1,539 carloads, to 16,276. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2019 included coal, down 6,538 carloads, to 69,261; grain, down 2,299 carloads, to 19,158; and miscellaneous carloads, down 544 carloads, to 10,537.

The middle row in the table below removes coal, grain, and petroleum from the changes in the railcar counts as these commodities are not economically intuitive.

This Week Carloads Intermodal Total
This week Year-over-Year -0.6 % +5.2 % +2.4 %
-- Ignoring coal, grain & petroleum +4.7 %
Year Cumulative to Date -5.9 % -5.4 % -5.6 %

[click on the graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png



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