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The Chattanooga Choo-Choo Boo-Hoo

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I recently quipped that the evening news would be far less unsettling to viewers if sung to a catchy tune in place of the customary monotone. Just once, I'd love for the CEO of a great company in a struggling industry to forego the predictable earnings call in favor of a song. In this case, let's call it the "Chattanooga choo-choo boo-hoo."

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC  ) sang in unison with the remainder of North American operators, echoing deep and worsening business conditions within the relevant freight categories. Net earnings collapsed 39% to $177 million alongside a 22% revenue haircut. Despite lower costs helped by cheaper fuel, the company's operating ratio surged an alarming 1,280 basis points from 67.5% in the fourth quarter to 80.3%.

CEO Wick Moorman tried to whistle Dixie, suggesting the drop in freight volumes would bottom out sometime in the second half of 2009 as President Obama's stimulus package gathers steam. On a sour note, though, equipment manufacturers Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) and Terex (NYSE: TEX  ) appear to have far lower expectations of the stimulus. Caterpillar CEO Jim Owens recently said he'd "rather be President Hu than President Obama" given the comparative economic challenges each leader faces.

Stimulus speculation aside, the numbers were terrible. The company's overall freight volumes fell 20% from the prior year, as emerging weakness in the domestic coal market piled onto the woeful performance of intermodal and general merchandise categories. In January, when I screamed like Eddie Van Halen for Fools to step off the rails for a while, the four-week rolling average freight volumes for Norfolk Southern were down only 18%. With that average now 26% below year-ago levels and Mr. Moorman warning of further reductions ahead, I could not be more serious about singing this cautionary tune.

The U.S. coal market is deteriorating beyond initial expectations. Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU  ) sounded the alarm, fellow rail operator CSX (NYSE: CSX  ) confirmed the observations, and reduced outlook from Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI  ) seals the deal. Total U.S. coal shipments by rail are down 14% over prior-year levels on a four-week rolling average. Moorman sees no near-term improvement for coal, citing increased use of natural gas by utilities and sharp reductions in exports of metallurgical coal to a hindered European steel market.

Adding expectations of further declines in key segments like intermodal transport, cars, car parts, and lumber, Wick Moorman's song is already sounding like a Carpenters-style tearjerker. Perhaps the evening news isn't so bad after all.

Further Foolishness:

Some 940 Motley Fool CAPS members, including 276 All-Stars, expect Norfolk Southern to outperform the S&P 500. In all, the CAPS community has shared its collective insight on 35 "road and rail" companies. Join the free CAPS community today and share your views on how the rail industry will fare throughout the current financial crisis.

Fool contributor Christopher Barker has never hopped a freight train, but he thinks it would be a fun place to learn the harmonica. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He owns shares of Arch Coal, Caterpillar, and Peabody Energy. Terex is a Motley Fool Ready Made Millionaire recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy named Thomas, from the island of Sodor.

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