March 2012 Rail Movements Contracts, All Due to Coal

Written by Steven Hansen

Econintersect publishes Association of American Railroads (AAR) weekly traffic reports on Thursdays, and this post provides a monthly overview showing rail movements for March 2012 compared to March 2011.

  • carloads down 5.8% year-over-year
  • intermodal (containers or trailers on railcars) up 3.5% year-over-year
  • total carloads plus intermodal down 1.8% year-over-year

Econintersect uses rail movements to add to understanding of economic dynamics in coming months. As long as growth remains positive, it bodes well for a positive economic outlook.

As coal comprises well over 40% of all commodities transported, and coal has major demand fluctuations unassociated with the economy – the below graph removes coal from the equation – and shows a 2.4% gain year-over-year.

The AAR highlighted in their report that it is not only coal which is causing the data wobble, but also grains (whose decline in transport also has little to do with economic drivers – only the profitability of the railroads).   A new graphic was provided this month which breaks down profitability by commodity showing coal shipments were not as significant of a profit center for rail as the tonnage would indicate.

The graphic below compares non-seasonally adjusted total rail movements year-over-year.

Most finished consumer goods which travel on rail move in intermodal units, containers and trailers, on rail cars. If there was only one pulse point to watch – it is this one. It shows positive (and weak) year-over-year growth. A caveat here: this needs to be viewed with trucking data to get a complete picture – as this same service is provided by both modes of transport.

Rail is one of the first reporters of March 2012 data. So far other major transport indicators are mixed but the January data is showing weak growth:

For sure, the economy is not in a strong growth cycle so far in 2012 as the transport numbers are anemic – but not recessionary.

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