Rail Week Ending Saturday, Dec. 22: Economically Intuitive Sectors Continue To Indicate A Slowing Economy

Week 51 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 economically intuitive sectors rolling averages remain in contraction but are improving.

Analyst Opinion of the Rail Data

The overall rate of rail growth in 2018 has slowly decelerating.

We review this data set to understand the economy. If coal, grain, and petroleum are removed from the analysis for carloads, this week it expanded 0.3 % year-over-year. We primarily use rolling averages the analyze the data due to weekly volatility - and the 4 week rolling average for the intuitive sectors remain in contraction year-over-year but improved from -1.5 % to -0.8 %.

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 has been relatively strong and grew 5.3 % YoY but the rate of growth trend has been slowing.

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 +1.5 % accelerating accelerating
13 week rolling average +1.2 % unchanged decelerating
52 week rolling average +2.1 % accelerating decelerating

A summary for this week from the AAR:

For this week, total U.S. weekly rail traffic was 567,252 carloads and intermodal units, up 4.2 percent compared with the same week last year.

Total carloads for the week ending December 22 were 277,111 carloads, up 3.1 percent compared with the same week in 2017, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 290,141 containers and trailers, up 5.3 percent compared to 2017.

Six of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase compared with the same week in 2017. They included coal, up 4,039 carloads, to 93,964; petroleum and petroleum products, up 2,019 carloads, to 13,401; and chemicals, up 1,908 carloads, to 35,032. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with the same week in 2017 included metallic ores and metals, down 1,194 carloads, to 24,385; nonmetallic minerals, down 257 carloads, to 32,826; and farm products excl. grain, and food, down 74 carloads, to 16,391.

For the first 51 weeks of 2018, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 13,430,308 carloads, up 1.7 percent from the same point last year; and 14,271,506 intermodal units, up 5.5 percent from last year. Total combined U.S. traffic for the first 51 weeks of 2018 was 27,701,814 carloads and intermodal units, an increase of 3.6 percent compared to last year.

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