Rail Recession: U.S. Carloads Continue Collapse As Manufacturing Slows

Nowhere is the slowdown in the U.S. economy more obvious than in places like Class 8 Heavy Duty Truck orders and rail traffic. We already wrote about how Class 8 orders continued to fall in October and new data the American Association of Railroads (AAR) now shows that last week's rail traffic and intermodal container usage both plunged.

The AAR reported total carloads for the week ended Nov. 9 came in at 248,905, down 5.1% compared with the same week in 2018. U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 266,364 containers and trailers, down 6.7% compared to 2018, according to Railway Age

One of the 10 carload segments that posted an increase YOY was grain, which was barely up 342 carloads to 21,855. Coal was down 9,577 carloads, to 75,180; miscellaneous carloads were down 843 carloads, to 10,944; and petroleum and petroleum products were down 741 carloads, to 12,617.

So far in 2019, railroads have reported total volume of 11,337,628 carloads, which is down 4.3% from the year prior. The year's 11,988,234 intermodal units are down 4.6% for the year and total combined traffic was down 4.4% to 23,325,862 carloads. 

The numbers for North America in total were also lower. 

North American rail volume for the week ending November 9, 2019, on 12 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 352,176 carloads, down 4.8% compared with the same week last year, and 352,712 intermodal units, down 6.5% compared with last year. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was 704,888 carloads and intermodal units, down 5.6%. North American rail volume for the first 45 weeks of 2019 was 31,852,518 carloads and intermodal units, down 3.4% compared with 2018.

Canadian rail traffic also crashed, down 5.5% with intermodal units down 5.9%. For the year, however, Canada has been the one North American country to edge out a gain on the year, with its cumulative traffic coming in at 6,824,664 carloads, up 0.4% on the year.

Mexican railroads were able to buck the broader trend, posting a slight increase in carloads for the week. 

Mexican railroads saw a slight uptick, as it reported 20,097 carloads for the week, up 2.8% compared with the same week last year, and 17,987 intermodal units, down 5.5%. Cumulative volume on Mexican railroads for the first 45 weeks of 2019 was 1,701,992 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, down 2.7% from the same point last year.

We noted this rail recession in the U.S. in early October, citing the manufacturing collapse in the U.S., much of which is being blamed on the trade war, as the main culprit. 

 

What's quite clear is that we're not yet at a trough. Trains have not yet bottomed," said Ben Hartford, an analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co. "We need to have some clarity in trade policy."

We noted in October that the manufacturing recession is more widespread than the mid-cycle slowdowns in 2012 and 2015/16. The slowdown has been concentrated in manufacturing for well over a year, driven by a downturn in business investments in 2019. 

We noted last month that there is an indication that the downturn has spilled over into service sector output and employment.

Now, "there are no pockets of growth," said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Lee Klaskow, who said a "railroad recession" could be imminent in a recent report. "There's really nothing that's tapping me on the shoulder saying, 'Hey look at me. I'm going to be your next growth engine.'"