Northern Santa Fe
On an annual basis, revenue climbed 18.7% to $12.99 billion from $10.95 billion, and EPS rocketed nearly 91% to $4.01 from $2.10. For the quarter, meanwhile, revenue jumped 19% year over year to $3.55 billion from $2.98 billion, while per-share earnings surged 24% to $1.13 from $0.91. The company's admirable performance was due in part to solid management of its fuel expense. In addition to hedges, Burlington Northern has employed fuel surcharges, which the firm estimates were 70% effective in recovering higher fuel costs in the fourth quarter.
Results were also driven, of course, by strength in most operating segments. In the fourth quarter, consumer products revenue rose 23%, industrial products revenue climbed 21%, and agricultural products revenue increased 20%. Even the one "problem" area, coal, which experienced a 4% revenue rise, was really not much of a problem -- 2005's fourth quarter actually represented an all-time record for revenue, tons, and units but constituted only a small increase from 2004's record fourth quarter.
Looking to 2006, the railroad operator may face some decelerating trends. Consumers are maxed out after years of free spending. Further, U.S. farmers produced the second-largest corn and soybean crops on record in 2005, but there's no guarantee 2006 will be so bountiful.
However, performance in the industrial and coal areas should help make up for any slackening in other segments. Coal in particular seems destined to remain in high demand, and Burlington Northern is determined to meet the transportation challenge. It has committed to a 10% increase in capital spending in 2006, part of which will go to the addition of 50 miles of double and triple track on its Powder River Basin line, which transports coal.
Admittedly, capacity expansion will drain Burlington Northern's cash. But the company has achieved solid improvements in its return on invested capital in recent years, and the outlook for its industrial and coal segments is strong. Consequently, Burlington Northern's plans seem likely to keep it steaming on.
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Fool contributor Brian Gorman is a freelance writer in Chicago. He does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.