Runaway Freight Train Finds Level Tracks

After shouting from the rooftops to steer Fools well clear of a railroad industry in fundamental freefall, I can finally report that the tracks have leveled out. Whether this is the bottom that CSX (NYSE: CSX  ) boldly declared last week, I'm not so sure, but let's take stock of where we are today.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (NYSE: BNI  ) and Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP  ) both reported second-quarter results last week, and both companies managed to soundly beat analysts' earnings estimates while missing to the downside on revenue. The secret, of course, was a singular focus on cost-cutting initiatives, as well as a sharp reduction in fuel costs from the prior year. In Union Pacific's case, fuel costs fell 69% to just $370 million. 

The ability of these railroads to remain solidly profitable in the face of these incredibly difficult business conditions is truly an amazing achievement.

I've been steadfast in sounding alarm bells about fundamental weakness in the various industries that drive rail freight traffic, but it seems I underestimated the railroads' capacity for shredding costs as revenue declined mercilessly. Burlington Northern Santa Fe delighted vested Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) investors and its own shareholders with earnings of $404 million, even as revenue dropped 26% to $3.3 billion. Union Pacific revenue fell 28% as freight volumes dropped 22%.

I still believe that a long, hard path awaits these operators, but their effective response to the crisis has mitigated a portion of my concern. Still, I just can't shake the feeling that shares have gotten ahead of themselves.

I find Canadian National Railway (NYSE: CNI  ) the most enticing member of the group, especially after a new arrangement with Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK  ) to haul some western Canadian coking coal to port. All the same, substantially more attractive entry prices could be in the making if an L-shaped recovery outlook sets into the broader markets.

Consider the outlook of the haulers themselves. Union Pacific CEO Jim Young declared: "We've got a long ways to go before you can declare the recession's over." Burlington Northern CEO Matt Rose noted: "We normally see a lot of improvement in the third quarter -- we're just not seeing that. But we are seeing stability in the volumes."

Any recovery will crawl at the speed of an Appalachian coal train, so I simply see no rush to hop aboard.

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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 also tweets. He owns no shares in the companies mentioned.

Berkshire Hathaway and Canadian National Railway are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

 The Fool's disclosure policy never plays on the tracks.


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  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2009, at 11:51 AM, JeanDavid wrote:

    Do not forget little Genesee and Wyoming.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2009, at 2:04 PM, Ojoajoman wrote:

    Yes, please, I too would love a new look at GWR. I have been pleasantly surprised by its resilience in the past year of these markets. What do you think might be the upside limits or intrinsic value numbers?

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2009, at 4:04 PM, XMFSinchiruna wrote:

    I'll be happy to look more closely at those two as soon as the earnings rush ebbs. :)

    Stay tuned!

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