Union Pacific leads big systems in quarterly traffic growth

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Bill Stephens/TRAINS: Steve Sweeney
A westbound Union Pacific stack train descends Sherman Hill at Dale, Wyo., in June 2018. Intermodal propelled UP to the industry lead in traffic growth in the third quarter.
Bill Stephens
OMAHA, Neb. — Union Pacific led the big Class I systems in traffic growth for the third quarter by notching a 6-percent gain in overall traffic.

Canadian Pacific, with 5.5-percent overall volume growth, was in second place for the quarter.

UP’s intermodal traffic surged 9 percent for the quarter, a figure that led the industry by topping Norfolk Southern’s 8-percent gain in intermodal. Strong carload gains in major UP traffic segments included chemicals, up 8 percent, and autos, up 6 percent.

Through the first nine months of 2018, BNSF Railway led the big six Class I railroads with 4.5 percent growth, with NS right on its heels with a 4.4-percent gain. UP wasn’t far behind, with overall carloads improving by 4 percent.

The publicly traded Class I railroads will report their third-quarter financial results this month.

CSX Transportation will kick off the earnings releases on Oct. 16, followed by CP on Oct. 18.

CP released record preliminary third-quarter results on Oct. 4 as part of its investor day. CP reported its best-ever figures for revenue and earnings per share.

Canadian National, whose performance metrics showed continued improvement in the third quarter as it added track capacity, crews, and locomotives to handle traffic growth in Western Canada, reports earnings on Oct. 23.

NS will report results on Oct. 24 and will likely face more Wall Street analyst questions about keeping pace with the rapid financial improvements at CSX Transportation, which last year adopted Precision Scheduled Railroading under then-CEO E. Hunter Harrison.

UP’s announcement last month that it will shift to an operating plan based on the principles of Precision Scheduled Railroading likely only will turn up the heat on NS CEO James Squires & Co.

On the second-quarter earnings call, Squires, like UP CEO Lance Fritz, faced a barrage of questions about why his railroad couldn’t move as fast and as far as CSX.

“The pressure will definitely be on NS to at least explain what they’re doing better than they have in the past,” says independent analyst Anthony B. Hatch.

UP reports its financial results on Oct. 25. Analysts likely will have more questions about UP’s move toward Precision Scheduled Railroading. Several analysts have questioned UP’s commitment to the Harrison operating model.

“The two … that are on the proverbial hot seat are the UP and Norfolk Southern,” Cowen & Co. analyst Jason Seidl said last month at the North East Association of Rail Shippers conference.

BNSF, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway, is expected to report quarterly results alongside its corporate parent on Nov. 2.
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