Although Canada's other Class 1 railroad, Canadian Pacific
I'll say right off the bat that I don't think there's much that management could have done differently, but this was a tough quarter. Revenue grew only 2% (6% on a constant currency basis), and while the operating ratio did improve from the prior year, operating income growth was only on the order of 4%. Were it not for a tax benefit, the bottom-line results wouldn't have been all that good.
The problem with this quarter was pretty simple: Revenue ton miles were down 6% and carloads were down almost 3%. In other words, while pricing is still OK here, the volume is not. While I suppose that a railroad company could have some control on the makeup of its cargo over time, that's just not possible on a year-to-year basis. So that means that Canadian Pacific is largely at the mercy of volume demand for commodities like grain, coal, fertilizers, and forest products.
Unfortunately, that's where the trouble was. Grain did all right, but coal and sulfur/fertilizer volumes were down sharply; not altogether surprising given what we've heard from the likes of Fording
Canadian Pacific has a pretty respectable operating ratio and the company is making good progress on velocity and dwell-times, and those are critical in boosting returns on capital. Nevertheless, I have a hard time getting comfortable with a railroad with such a large cyclical business component to its revenue (the coal it ships is largely metallurgical coal for export, not the more economically resilient steam coal for domestic power generation). With that in mind, I'd still favor Burlington Northern
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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).