Friday, December 08, 2017

AAR: Rail Carloads decreased, Intermodal Solid in November

by Bill McBride on 12/08/2017 04:16:00 PM

From the Association of American Railroads (AAR) Rail Time Indicators. Graphs and excerpts reprinted with permission.

In November 2017, like in October 2017, U.S. rail traffic had both a glass-is-half-empty and a glass-is-half-full feel to it. It’s half empty because total carloads were down 0.9% (11,442 carloads) in November, their fifth straight year-over-year monthly decline after eight straight monthly increases. Railroads, of course, are concerned with their total level of business, not just particular commodities, so total carloads matter. Eight of the 20 categories the AAR tracks had carload declines in November, but three of these were especially important: coal (down 22,560 carloads, or 5.0%), grain (down 16,311 carloads, or 12.7%), and petroleum and petroleum products (down 3,877 carloads, or 7.2%). All three of these categories saw carload declines in November for reasons that don’t have much to do with the state of the economy. So, the half-full feel comes from the fact that many traffic categories that are more sensitive to the economy did relatively well in November (e.g., steel, up 6.9%; stone, clay, and glass products, up 6.0%; chemicals up 3.6%). That’s a good sign for the economy going forward. The fact that intermodal originations were up 3.8% (50,029 containers and trailers) in November and will almost certainly set a new annual record in 2017 is a good sign as well.
Rail Traffic Click on graph for larger image.

This graph from the Rail Time Indicators report shows U.S. average weekly rail carloads (NSA).  Dark blue is 2017.

Rail carloads have been weak over the last decade due to the decline in coal shipments.
Originated carloads on U.S. railroads totaled 1,307,521 in November 2017, down 0.9% (11,442 carloads) from November 2016 thanks mainly to big declines in carloads of coal, grain, and petroleum products. Total carloads averaged 261,504 per week in November 2017, ahead of November 2015 (260,453) but otherwise the lowest weekly average for November since sometime prior to 1988, when our data begin.
Rail TrafficThe second graph is for intermodal traffic (using intermodal or shipping containers):
U.S. intermodal originations totaled 1.37 million containers and trailers in November 2017. That’s 3.8%, or 50,029 units, higher than in November 2016 and the tenth straight monthly increase. Weekly volume in November 2017 averaged 273,832 units, the eighth largest weekly average for any month on record and the fourth highest for any month this year.