Like a snowball rolled from an alpine peak, evidence is gathering at breakneck speed suggesting a brisk reversal of fortune on tap for North America's beloved railway stocks.
The last of the major rail haulers to report fourth-quarter earnings, Norfolk Southern
Let's take a moment to recap. Canadian National Railway
The pitfalls ahead for railways are entirely macroeconomic in nature, and in no way reflect upon what are some extremely well-run companies (Norfolk Southern improved its operating ratio by 450 basis points to 67.5% in the fourth quarter). To date, rail companies were able to employ a number of lifelines to delay the impacts of an accelerating economic contraction. Lagging fuel surcharges kept prices relatively strong even as volumes declined. Strength in coal shipments has served to offset some horrid declines in freight volumes for automobiles, construction materials, and even grain.
Those lifelines, however, have now been used. Fuel prices can scarcely drop further, and production cuts among coal miners will exacerbate volume declines that have reached troubling proportions over recent weeks. According to industry data, Norfolk Southern's overall freight volumes have averaged roughly 18% below prior-year levels over the past four weeks.
I believe that resumption of coal demand will ultimately toss another lifeline to rail stocks, and Norfolk Southern is positioned well with rail networks surrounding the prolific Appalachian region where companies like CONSOL Energy
Some 880 Motley Fool CAPS members, including 248 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 captains yachts and writes about stocks. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He owns shares of Massey Energy. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value and a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Canadian National Railway is also a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy can climb any mountain.