OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Investors will soon learn more about what has been moving in the economy as three of the nation's largest freight railroads release their fourth-quarter financial reports. The companies may also face safety questions about crude oil shipments after several explosive derailments in recent months.
CSX will release its fourth-quarter results on Wednesday. Norfolk Southern Corp. will report results on Jan. 22 and Union Pacific Corp. the next day. The other major U.S. freight railroad, BNSF, is part of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which is expected to release results in early March.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Several accidents have raised questions about the safety of the growing business of railroads hauling crude oil through North America.
Earlier this month, a train derailed in a rural area of New Brunswick, Canada, and several cars caught fire. In December, an oil train derailed and exploded in North Dakota forcing the temporary evacuation of a small town.
No one was hurt in those two incidents, but last summer 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the middle of a small community.
The railroad industry defends its safety record and says rail remains one of the safest ways to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials.
Railroads have also been dealing with weak coal demand because a number of utilities took advantage of cheap natural gas prices to turn away from coal. That hurt railroad shipments and revenue.
Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Matthew Troy said in a research note that coal shipments and the railroads' fortunes should improve in 2014, especially for CSX and Norfolk Southern.
Troy said investors should search the railroads' reports for details of the level of utility coal stockpiles and the outlook for crude oil shipments at the start of the year.
WHY IT MATTERS: Investors watch major freight railroads closely because they are considered gauges of the nation's economic health. Railroads carry cars, chemicals, fuel, crops, lumber and containers of imported goods across the nation, so their earnings reflect the health of many industries.
WHAT'S EXPECTED: Analysts surveyed by FactSet expect CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., to report earnings of 43 cents per share on $3.01 billion revenue in the quarter.
Analysts predict Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific will report quarterly earnings of $2.49 per share on revenue of $5.57 billion.
Norfolk Southern, based in Norfolk, Va., is predicted to earn $1.50 per share in the quarter on $2.85 billion revenue.
LAST YEAR'S QUARTER: CSX reported net income of $443 million, or 43 cents per share, in last year's fourth quarter on $2.9 billion revenue.
Union Pacific reported net income of $1.04 billion, or $2.19 per share, on revenue of $5.25 billion.
Norfolk Southern reported $413 million net income, or $1.30 per share, on revenue of $2.68 billion.
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CSX Corp.: www.csx.com
Union Pacific Corp.: www.up.com
Norfolk Southern Corp.: www.nscorp.com