Rail Traffic Volumes Tumble As Coal Stockpiles Soar At Record Rate

For the first two months of 2016, it seemed as if a modest, if stable, rebound was finally taking place among one of the hardest hit transportation sectors of 2015, rails. Alas, like virtually everything else, this too has proven to be nothing more than a dead cat coming back to life and getting run over by a train.

As RBC writes in a recent notes, rail traffic volume declines have again intensified. "On a Y/Y basis, traffic slowed by -14% Y/Y for week 11 as all rails posted stiff volume declines and on a segment basis only Motor Vehicles carloads were higher (+7% Y/Y). Since week 7 when volumes grew by +4% Y/Y, the sharpest traffic decline has come in Intermodal carloads (from growth of +17% Y/Y for week 7 to a -12% Y/Y decline last week). Coal headwinds have also intensified in recent weeks and the segment remains the major laggard so far this quarter (-30% Y/Y QTD)."

Visually:

 

And while we have touched on some of the primary catalysts for the ongoing decline in railroad traffic, chief among which the drop off in global trade and the plunge in oil transportation, a third - just as important factor - has been the situation involving US coal power plants, where as the EIA writes, "coal stockpiles at electric generating facilities totaled 197 million tons at the end of 2015, the highest level since June 2012 and the highest year-end inventories in at least 25 years."

 

The full details from EIA's Today in Energy, by Tim Shear:

As coal stockpiles at power plants rise, shippers are reducing coal railcar loadings

 Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly and Association of American Railroads

Coal stockpiles at electric generating facilities totaled 197 million tons at the end of 2015, the highest level since June 2012 and the highest year-end inventories in at least 25 years. More than 40 million tons of coal were added to stockpiles at electric generating facilities from September through December, the largest build during that timespan in at least 15 years. In addition to relatively low overall electricity generation, largely attributable to the warmest winter on record, coal-fired electricity has recently been losing market share to electricity produced using natural gas and renewable resources.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly

Coal stockpiles typically follow a seasonal pattern in which stocks build during the lower electricity demand periods of the spring and fall and then get drawn down during periods of higher electricity demand in the summer and winter. In 2015, the stockpile build from August to December was 40 million tons, far higher than the 11 million ton average stockpile build for these months over 2001-14. Coal stockpiles typically decrease in December, averaging a roughly 3 million ton decline for the month over 2001-14. However, stockpiles this December increased by more than 8 million tons.

As stockpiles grew toward the end of 2015, shipments of coal by rail fell. Weekly coal railcar loadings averaged nearly 94,000 carloads per week from September through December 2015, 22% below average loadings for that time of year over the previous five years. Railcar loadings were even lower in the first months of 2016. Through February, weekly coal railcar loadings averaged slightly more than 75,000 carloads, 35% below the previous five-year average.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly

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What is most surprising is that the near record high coal stockpile levels at the end of 2015 come despite a reduction in coal-fired generation capacity. From 2010 to 2015, total U.S. coal generating capacity declined 10%, falling by nearly 33 gigawatts (GW) to 285 GW. One way of measuring coal stockpiles while accounting for the overall change in generating capacity is to calculate days of burn. This calculation considers the current stockpile level at each generator and its estimated consumption (burn) rates in coming months, based on the average consumption rates for those months over the past three years. This measure approximates how many days the generator could run at historical levels before depleting its existing stockpile.

This means that just as oil inventories hit all time highs at the end of 2015 and into 2016, the same was taking place at US power plant coal stockpiles; worse, since much electricity production has been shifted to other, cleaner forms of electric generation, the excess coal capacity in the market is so vast, that it will take pervasive, acute bankruptcies to reset some semblance of equilibrium. It also means that the Peabody bankruptcy will be only the start, and that tens of thousands more hard-working Americans will soon lose their jobs.

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