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Once a freight train gets up to full speed, its momentum is something to behold.
Rail carrier CSX (NYSE: CSX ) resembled a lesson in physics with its fourth-quarter earnings results, as the brakes of a global recession are apparently taking some time to slow this locomotive. Adjusting for a major writedown of the company's famed Greenbrier luxury resort in West Virginia, the company's robust operational performance stands in contrast to recent developments throughout the domestic industrial sector.
With year-over-year increases to both revenue and operating income, CSX rolled along with a 6% increase to adjusted net earnings. The company withstood a 10% decline in overall freight volumes on the strength of both operational efficiencies and a pricing environment that has thus far been resilient to the slowdown. Continuing another positive trend, CSX also improved its operating ratio by 110 basis points to 74.1%.
Stop the train!
If you're thinking all this sounds too good to be true, I agree. During the fourth quarter of 2008, Fools witnessed an incredible one-two punch of abrupt demand erosion and production declines throughout several industrial sectors of the U.S. economy. Pronounced weakness from key manufacturers like Ford (NYSE: F ) spilled over quickly into metal products, forcing United States Steel (NYSE: X ) to suspend production at a major mill in St. Louis, and prompting Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) to cut overall production by nearly 20%.
Even a steaming locomotive can't overcome that kind of braking power, and I expect results from this first quarter of 2009 to look decidedly different for CSX and its competitors. As miners of everything from copper to coal have scaled back their production volumes in recent months, a collision with earnings for the rail companies is -- in my opinion -- inevitable.
Both CSX and competitor Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC ) derive approximately 30% of their revenue from shipping coal. Although I believe coal demand will eventually recover, the near-term outlook here in the U.S. remains somewhat negative. Recent production cuts by giants like Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE: CLF ) and Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU ) foretell of revenue declines that lie tied to the tracks ahead. CSX sees further price hikes of 5% or more in 2009, which may help to offset volume declines. For the Fool seeking a long-term ride on the freight trains, though, I can't help feeling that tickets may get a little cheaper before long.