Rail Week Ending February 2019: Economically Intuitive Sectors Remain In Contraction

Week 8 of 2019 shows same week total rail traffic (from same week one year ago) contracted according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) traffic data. The economically intuitive sectors rolling averages remain in contraction.

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) contracted 0.3 % 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 -4.8 % to -3.2 %.

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):

(Click on image to enlarge)

.Intermodal transport (containers or trailers on rail cars) growth has been relatively strong over the 12 months - but in 2019 this portion of rail transport has weakened and the year-to-date growth is now in contraction.

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).

(Click on image to enlarge)

A summary for this week from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 522,630 carloads and intermodal units, down 1.1 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending February 23 were 256,954 carloads, up 2 percent compared with the same week in 2018, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 265,676 containers and trailers, down 3.9 percent compared to 2018.

Seven of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2018. They included petroleum and petroleum products, up 2,135 carloads, to 12,188; miscellaneous carloads, up 1,874 carloads, to 9,749; and grain, up 1,636 carloads, to 21,695. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2018 were motor vehicles and parts, down 819 carloads, to 16,705; farm products excl. grain, and food, down 704 carloads, to 15,792; and chemicals, down 613 carloads, to 30,982.

For the first eight weeks of 2019, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 1,987,943 carloads, up 0.4 percent from the same point last year; and 2,133,036 intermodal units, down 0.1 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first eight weeks of 2019 was 4,120,979 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 0.1 percent compared to last year.

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