When last we visited high-quality trucking company Arkansas Best (NASDAQ:ABFS), I decried the absence of any real buyback activity or insider share purchases and wondered aloud whether Fools should own a stock that management didn't seem terribly keen to buy.

Well, it seems like management knew what it was doing (or rather, not doing). Since late January, concerns have mounted regarding the health of the trucking business, and the stock sits about 16% lower today.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the trucker's first-quarter earnings report was a mix of good news (and good performance) and tempered enthusiasm. Revenue was up about 11% for the quarter, while net income climbed about 133%.

For the company's ABF Freight business, revenue was up 11%, as tonnage per day increased about 3.7% and revenue per hundredweight climbed about 7%. Efficiency also improved, as the company lowered its operating ratio to 95.5% from 97.5%.

For the quarter, the truckload business appeared to perform better than the less-than-truckload (LTL) business, as tonnage increases and revenue yield were both stronger in the truckload segment (6.7% vs. 2.9% and 10.7% vs. 7.2%, respectively). Keep in mind, though, that comparisons are a little disingenuous, since the LTL business is about 10 times the size of the truckload operations.

On the downside, company management indicated that LTL tonnage growth slowed during the quarter and that April-to-date tonnage was running "slightly ahead" of last year's level. In the company's other division, Clipper, which focuses largely on intermodal business, revenue climbed about 12% and the operating ratio improved from 102.8% to 100.1%.

Although the company made a small amount of stock repurchases during the quarter (37,650 shares for about $1.5 million), I'd hardly call that a rousing endorsement, given the company's strong balance sheet and virtual absence of debt. What's more, while the company seems to be dedicated to responsible and profitable operations, it doesn't seem like the pace of business is accelerating all that much.

It's hard for me to be too negative regarding Arkansas Best -- given the company's strong return on equity, low debt, and strong margins. What's more, this union operator has a stable skilled workforce and doesn't have to scramble for drivers like many non-union haulers. And it has one of the lowest trailing P/Es in the sector. Therein lies the conundrum.

Other haulers like CNF (NYSE:CNF), Old Dominion (NASDAQ:ODFL), and Landstar (NASDAQ:LSTR) seem to be doing a little better of late in terms of growth, and all but CNF have superior historic rates of growth.

Thus, Fools looking to get into the trucking sector at this late date have a tricky decision to make -- a low-priced and high-quality hauler like Arkansas Best, or a faster-growing, but more expensive rival.

For other trucking takes:

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).