This Railroad's on Track

Arguably the finest train operator in North America, Canadian National (NYSE: CNI  ) continues to impress me. The rail company faced two major obstacles in both the fourth quarter and the full year, but financial results weren't derailed.

First, because CN does a good amount of cross-border business, the company suffered from a strong Loonie as its U.S. revenues were translated into the native Canadian currency. For CN, aggressive Fed rate cuts will do little to improve the U.S. dollar's value versus its Canadian cousin in 2008. At the same time, they should have a favorable impact on the company's largely greenback-denominated debt. Then there's the possibility that these cuts will actually help the real economy, though some of us Fools remain unconvinced. On balance, currency issues are much more menacing for miner Teck Cominco (NYSE: TCK  ) .

Another challenge, again from the United States, is the plummeting demand for forest products because of construction contraction. This sector registered a revenue decline of 19% during the quarter and 11% for the year. Fortunately, CN has a diverse enough product mix that stronger items like grain, fertilizer, and coal were able to offset this revenue shortfall.

While revenues dipped 3% in the quarter, per-share earnings were flat versus 2006, excluding one-time items. The company actually included this lower, adjusted figure in the headline of its press release. That lack of spin tells you quite a bit about the integrity of this management.

Looking ahead, CN forecasts a "soft landing" for the economy in the back half of 2008, a scenario which leads the company to project moderate growth in revenues and earnings for the year. CN also expects to generate about $750 million in free cash flow, which will support a 10% dividend hike and continued share buybacks.

CN's solid financial footing will also help fund its purchase and rehabilitation of a key strategic railway in the Athabascan oil sands region, where traffic volumes have been guaranteed by both Nexen (NYSE: NXY  ) and solid Suncor (NYSE: SU  ) . You didn't think that Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP  ) was the only one planning on hitching up to the oil sands, did you?


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