For two quarters in a row now, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) (NYSE:BNI) has posted respectable earnings, only to see its stock get hit for largely unrelated reasons. In this particular case, BNSF had the bad luck to report on a day when UPS (NYSE:UPS) warned that it sees signs of slowing economic growth.

While rail demand in general is a function of economic conditions, BNSF should be a bit better off than most whenever the inevitable slowdown arrives. A sizable chunk of its typical cargo is what you might call "defensive" -- goods like coal and agricultural products that will still get shipped even if growth slows. Growth in those two areas also happened to be pretty respectable this time around, with coal revenue up 21% and agricultural revenue up about 14%.

Whatever the future may hold, this quarter saw revenue jump 18%, with half of that coming from volume and the rest split between pricing and fuel surcharges. BNSF also continues to improve its profitability -- the operating ratio dropped again this quarter (both annually and sequentially) and operating income rose 22% from last year's level. Turning to asset utilization, the picture was a little more mixed. Though the company did show sequential improvement in metrics like car velocity, there were also some year-on-year declines.

Management continues to sound quite confident about near-term prospects for both the company and the industry. In the short run at least, that's probably valid -- prices aren't going to crater in a quarter or two. What's more, fuel prices continue to squeeze truckers like Arkansas Best (NASDAQ:ABFS) and J.B. Hunt (NASDAQ:JBHT), which helps the relative affordability of rail transport. Of course, this is all interlinked; at some point, a drop in shipping demand would lead to lower fuel demand for truckers, and lower pricing power for the rails.

Buying rail stocks today takes some intestinal fortitude, since you're basically stepping in front of market momentum. That's not always a bad place to be, but it can be tough and painful in the short run (witness what happened in homebuilder stocks when investor confidence faded). I think BNSF is a fine operator, perhaps the best in America. But in my view, there are easier pickings in today's market than a cyclical operator in an industry with high ongoing capital needs and low historical returns on capital.

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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).