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posted on 04 March 2020

Rail Week Ending 29 February 2020 - Intuitive Sectors And Intermodal Significantly Declines

Written by Steven Hansen

Week 9 of 2020 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) contracted according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. Total rail traffic has been mostly in contraction for over one year. The intuitive sector's rolling average significantly worsened this week.

Analyst Opinion of the Rail Data

The big decline this week was intermodal (trucks and containers on flatcars) which accounts for half of the rail traffic,

We review this data set to understand the economy. The intuitive sectors (total carloads removing coal, grain, and petroleum) contracted 2.9 % 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 significantly declined from -0.5 % to -2.4 %.

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. Last week the counts were in expansion but they returned to contraction this week.

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 -8.2 % worsening
13 week rolling average -7.6 % improving
52 week rolling average -6.1 % worsening

A summary for this week from the AAR:

U.S. railroads originated 927,084 carloads in February 2020, down 7.3 percent, or 73,058 carloads, from February 2019. U.S. railroads also originated 997,683 containers and trailers in February 2020, down 8.9 percent, or 96,897 units, from the same month last year. Combined U.S. carload and intermodal originations in February 2020 were 1,924,767, down 8.1 percent, or 169,955 carloads and intermodal units from February 2019.

"Total U.S. rail carloads in February were down 7.3% driven almost entirely by coal. Excluding coal, carloads in February were down just 0.8%, their best showing in a year," said AAR Senior Vice President John Gray. "In February, 10 of the 20 commodity categories we track saw year-over-year carload gains, the most in more than a year."

In February 2020, 10 of the 20 carload commodity categories tracked by the AAR each month saw carload gains compared with February 2019. These included: chemicals, up 3,718 carloads or 2.9 percent; petroleum & petroleum products, up 3,488 carloads or 7.2 percent; and all other carloads, up 2,875 carloads or 12 percent. Commodities that saw declines in February 2020 from February 2019 included: coal, down 67,770 carloads or 21.1 percent; crushed stone, sand & gravel, down 10,557 carloads or 12.5 percent; and grain, down 5,350 carloads or 6.4 percent.

"There's a huge amount of uncertainty regarding the coronavirus situation, but to date the impact on U.S. rail traffic appears limited. That could change if, for example, sharp declines projected by U.S. ports occur in the weeks ahead," Gray said. "Supply chain disruptions related directly or indirectly to the coronavirus may have played some unquantifiable role in the decline in U.S. intermodal volumes in February, but intermodal has been falling for more than a year. The headwinds facing railroads that pre-date the virus include lingering trade impacts and economic uncertainty; severe winter weather in parts of the country; blockades in Canada that shut down rail traffic there and impacted domestic traffic too."

Excluding coal, carloads were down 5,288 carloads, or 0.8 percent, in February 2020 from February 2019. Excluding coal and grain, carloads were up 62 carloads, or 0 percent.

Total U.S. carload traffic for the first two months of 2020 was 2,092,817 carloads, down 6.5 percent, or 146,168 carloads, from the same period last year; and 2,242,763 intermodal units, down 7 percent, or 167,978 containers and trailers, from last year.

Total combined U.S. traffic for the first nine weeks of 2020 was 4,335,580 carloads and intermodal units, a decrease of 6.8 percent compared to last year.

Week Ending February 29, 2020

Total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 477,611 carloads and intermodal units, down 9.6 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending February 29 were 234,652 carloads, down 6.5 percent compared with the same week in 2019, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 242,959 containers and trailers, down 12.5 percent compared to 2019.

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2019. They included petroleum and petroleum products, up 1,506 carloads, to 13,389; farm products excl. grain, and food, up 1,071 carloads, to 16,285; and metallic ores and metals, up 654 carloads, to 21,383. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2019 included coal, down 16,712 carloads, to 62,152; nonmetallic minerals, down 3,069 carloads, to 28,909; and miscellaneous carloads, down 343 carloads, to 9,907.

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 -6.5 % -12.5 % -9.6 %
-- Ignoring coal, grain & petroleum -2.8 %
Year Cumulative to Date -6.5 % -7.0 % -6.8 %

[click on the graph below to enlarge]

z rail1.png

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