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Posts tagged with: "RAILPMD11"

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A downturn in travel of pandemic proportions

The latest data on miles traveled by air, rail, and road

It’s not news to say that people in modern economies travel. For work, school, or pleasure. For a few hours, days, weeks, months, or even longer. Going places has been an integral and obvious part of work and life for most American households and those of any wealthy economy.

It’s also not news to say that travel and work commutes came to a halt last year when governments and individuals began combating the COVID-19  pandemic. Many workers were directed to work from the confines of their own homes, and some were hit even harder and lost their jobs. Normally bustling cities, highways, airports, and train stations came to a standstill and starting looking like staged scenes in a post-apocalyptic movie.

To illustrate this dramatic context, we constructed this FRED graph to track the dramatic change in the number of miles traveled by planes, trains, and automobiles. FRED graphs allow you to scale the values in relation to a specific date, which in this graph is December 2019. We also give ourselves some room by starting back in 2018, two years before the pandemic, to view previous trends and seasonal patterns in the data.

Of course, the graph shows the expected collapse in travel. What seems surprising, however, is the extent of this collapse for planes and trains, the more “social” form of travel.

Air travel, measured in passenger miles, plunged in May 2020 to 3.5% of the level seen in December 2019. The dry period for this industry lasted from April to June 2020. The recovery has been sluggish and is far from complete. The volume of passenger mile traveled in December 2020 is still just a paltry 36.6% of the volume in December 2019.

Rail travel, also measured in passenger miles, had a more moderate collapse, reaching a low of 7.5%. The overall pattern here is very similar to that of air travel, but the recovery is even more sluggish. Rail passenger miles in December 2020 is even more paltry: 21.2% of what it was in December 2019.

Road travel, measured in vehicle miles, reveals some less-dramatic but still interesting patterns. As expected, we see a drastic fall for the months of March and April, but it is much less abrupt than it was for air and rail: It falls to only 61% of the level in December 2019. And some of the decline can be attributed to seasonality, as shown by the data of 2018 and 2019.

Of course, vehicles provide an important advantage in pandemic travel, which is that travelers can remain within their social bubbles. The recovery here is also much faster. By July, the volume of vehicle miles was already at 95.6% of the level in December 2019. However, the expected seasonal pattern would have July numbers normally 7% above December numbers, which indicates the real gap was around 13%. So, as of December 2020, miles were less than 90% of those in December 2019.

No doubt, 2021 and beyond will be different as we re-learn how to travel while keeping ourselves and others as safe as possible. Our methods of freight delivery may also change. For now, we know the ongoing COVID crisis has accelerated the trend of working from home. It may also affect other trends (e.g., millennials’ reluctance to buy cars) and potentially reallocate economic activity across geographic areas, which could have vast implications for us all.

How to make these graphs: Search FRED for “miles” and choose the series “Rail Passenger Miles” (series ID RAILPMD11). From the “Edit Graph” panel, use “Add Line” to search for miles again and select “Air Revenue Passenger Miles” (AIRRPMTSID11) and “Vehicle Miles Traveled” (TRFVOLUSM227NFWA). Under “Units” choose “Index…” and set 100 to December 2019. With the “Format” tab, increase the weight of each line and choose your colors. Finally, use the slider (below graph) or date picker (above graph) to begin the display of data in 2018.

Suggested by Alexander Monge-Naranjo.

View on FRED, series used in this post: AIRRPMTSID11, RAILPMD11, TRFVOLUSM227NFWA

Staying put during the pandemic: Fewer miles in trains, planes, and automobiles

An earlier FRED Blog post covered the trends and cycles in the average number of miles per person traveled on the road. More recently, we’ve seen changes in all kinds of travel as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The graph above uses data from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics on the number of miles traveled each month by people riding trains, planes, and automobiles.

  • A rail passenger-mile is 1 passenger carried 1 mile.
  • An air revenue passenger-mile is 1 paying passenger carried 1 mile.
  • And vehicle miles traveled is the sum of the number of roadway miles traveled by each vehicle and (barring unoccupied self-driving cars) amounts to at least 1 person per vehicle per mile.

Before the pandemic, in February 2020, for each mile traveled by rail there were 167 miles traveled by air and 511 miles traveled by road vehicle. But as professional sport games and cultural and recreational venues closed, personal travel plans were scrapped; and the need for social distancing replaced business travel with teleconferencing.

Between February and April

  • Travel by rail declined 92%.
  • Travel by air declined 96%.
  • Travel on roads declined 41%.

All types of miles rebounded between April and May. Travel by rail and air improved some but the difference is almost imperceptible. Travel on roads rebounded the most, which may reflect a partial substitution from trains and planes to automobiles, where social distancing is much easier to accomplish. But as of May, road miles still remained 27% below their February value.

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How this graph was created: Search for and select “Rail Passenger Miles.”
From the “Edit Graph” panel, use the “Add Line” tab to search for and select “Air Revenue Passenger Miles” and “Vehicle Miles Traveled.” Next, customize Line 1 by typing the formula a/10 and clicking “Apply.” Last, from the “Edit Graph” panel, click on the “Format” tab. Under Line 3, select “Y-Axis position: right” and select colors to taste. Note: Because the order of magnitude of each series is dramatically different, we customized the data units and graph format to allow us to see the three series at once.

Suggested by Diego Mendez-Carbajo.

View on FRED, series used in this post: AIRRPMTSID11, RAILPMD11, VMTD11

Where is rail heading?

Tracking freight and passengers on U.S. railroads

What’s the story with trains? It turns out that U.S. railroad transportation has some nuances. The graph above shows that the amount of freight transported by train dropped during the Great Recession, as expected. But freight transport doesn’t appear to have gotten back on track since then. Passenger transport, however, rebounded in a big way after the Great Recession and has sustained levels well above those in the early-to-mid 2000s. What’s behind the disparity here? Passenger traffic in the U.S. is essentially driven by the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington. This is where Amtrak introduced the Acela Express, a train that successfully competes with other modes of transportation. The gradual success of this train alone may explain the rise in passenger rail. Freight traffic appears to be less successful in matching its competition—mainly, trucking and waterway transportation. The graph below follows trucking and waterway, which seem to do better after the Great Recession than before.

How this graph was created: Search for “rail,” check the two series, and click on “Add to Graph.” From the “Edit Graph” menu, open the “Format” tab and place one of the series on the right axis. For the second graph, search for “tonnage,” check the two series, and click on “Add to Graph.”

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

View on FRED, series used in this post: RAILFRTCARLOADSD11, RAILPMD11, TRUCKD11, WATERBORNED11


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