Posts Tagged ‘CSX finances’

CSX Optimistic About Traffic Growth

April 21, 2021

In taking a closer look at the financial performance of CSX in the first quarter of 2021, it becomes apparent that profits and revenue fell because declines in merchandise and coal traffic overwhelmed intermodal growth.

Nonetheless, during a conference call on Tuesday, company executives expressed optimism that traffic will grow overall this year due to a recovering economy shaking off the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We entered the year projecting volume growth in excess of GDP and still expect to achieve this target,” CEO James Foote said.

“We will continue to attract demand throughout the year, and based on the combination of the strengthening economic outlook and our focus on converting additional volumes off the highway, we now expect to achieve double-digit full year revenue growth.”

Quarterly operating income fell 7 percent to $1.1 billion while revenue declined 1 percent to $2.81 billion. Earnings per share slid 7 percent to 93 cents.

The operating ratio crept up by 2.2 points to 60.9 percent as expenses rose 2 percent.

CSX executives attributed the latter to the effects of employee COVID-19 infections, harsh winter weather, and a fuel surcharge lag.

Overall volume was up 1 percent for the quarter with intermodal traffic growing 10 percent on the strength of an increase in imports at East Coast ports.

Yet merchandise traffic fell 6 percent, largely driven by a 16 percent decline in automotive traffic and an 8 percent decline in chemicals traffic.

A global shortage of computer chips has hamstrung auto production in North American. The chips are placed in new vehicles.

Declines in chemical traffic were prompted by falling crude oil and frac sand shipments.

Coal traffic was down 5 percent, which CSX attributed to fewer exports.

Foote said going forward CSX is focused on improving its train velocity performance, noting that the pandemic and winter weather adversely affected crew availability.

Train velocity was down 11 percent while terminal dwell time was up 30 percent.

On-time performance, based on trip-plan compliance, fell for both intermodal and carload traffic.

Figures released by the company showed 85 percent of intermodal shipments arrived on time, down from 96 percent a year ago.

Merchandise carloads fulfilled their trip plans 67 percent of the time, down from 81 percent a year ago.

CSX operated a record 101 trains per day with distributed power and continued its trend of operating more freight on fewer but longer trains.

During the first quarter train length was up 13 percent and employment down 7 percent due to reduced need for train crews.

CSX Net Earnings Fell 14% in 3rd Quarter

October 23, 2020

CSX this week said that during the third quarter its net earnings declined 14 percent to $736 million, or 96 cents per share, compared with $856 million, or $1.08 per share, in the third quarter of 2019.

Revenue fell 11 percent to $2.65 billion. CSX officials said intermodal traffic growth was offset by declines in coal and merchandise volumes, as well as lower fuel surcharge revenue. Operating income fell 11 percent to $1.14 billion.

The operating ratio, which measures the percentage of revenue devoted to expenses, was 56.9 percent. A year ago the OR for the same quarter was 56.8 percent.

Expenses fell 11 percent to $1.51 billion, which CSX executives attributed to efficiency gains and volume-related reductions.

In a conference call with stock analysts, CSX CEO James Foote said that during the second quarter of this year the carrier experienced its largest and most rapid sequential volume declines in history.

But during the third quarter Foote said CSX was able to “efficiently absorb the record rebound in volumes, while maintaining high level of service,” particularly in intermodal markets.

“The last six months have truly been surreal,” he said. “Think about that: Volume declines and increases twice as steep as the largest swings we experienced in the Great Recession [of 2008] in the span of just a few months.”

Foote said fourth quarter traffic is up on a year-over-year basis. CSX still expects capital expenditures to be at the low end of a $1.6 billion to $1.7 billion range.

In tandem with announcing its quarterly earnings, CSX also announced that its board of directors had approved a new share repurchase program.

The company has been sitting on $2.9 billion in cash and the board authorized an additional $5 billion share buyback program, making the total share repurchase program worth $6 billion.

CSX executives acknowledged that on-time performance deteriorated in the third quarter when compared to the second quarter of this year and the third quarter of 2019.

But Foote said just a few years ago large volume swings would have gridlocked America’s railroads. 

“If you’d had this kind of traffic surge across the rail network in North America four or five years ago, we would be now talking about gridlock across all the major cities in the country. And we wouldn’t be doing anything,” Foote said.

“And now with the common mindset of how you run a railroad, we’re able to respond, we’re able to pivot, we’re nimble, we can add capacity, we can shrink capacity, we can right-size our business and we can do that much more effectively and much more logically and thoughtfully.” 

Overall, CSX traffic volume was down 3 percent for the quarter, with intermodal growth of 7 percent undercut by a 5 percent decline in merchandise traffic and a 27 percent drop in coal.

Volume has increased 3 percent when measured from March 1, before the onset of the pandemic, to the end of the third quarter.

CSX has longer and fewer trains, using 6 percent fewer crews and an active locomotive fleet that’s 8 percent smaller. Train starts have fallen by 11 percent.

During the third quarter, CSX set a record for the number of trains using distributed motive power, averaging 100 trains per day.

CSX Lost 20% of its Traffic in Second Quarter

July 23, 2020

CSX posted a decline of 20 percent in traffic volume during the second quarter of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold accompanied by an economic recession.

It was the largest quarterly decline in company history and twice as severe as what it experienced during the Great Recession of 2008.

Operating income fell 37 percent to $828 million while revenue tumbled 26 percent to $2.25 billion. Earnings per share fell 40 percent to 65 cents.

Despite cutting costs by 19 percent, CSX saw its operating ratio rise 5.9 points, to 63.3 percent .

Operating ratio is the percentage of revenue devoted to expenses.

All traffic categories fell with coal volume plunging 44 percent, merchandise traffic off 22 percent and intermodal sinking 11 percent.

There was a bit of good news, though. Traffic has risen about 25 percent since the low point of the pandemic in May.

“Wow. Where do I start in talking about this quarter?” said CSX CEO James Foote during an earnings call.

“This was the most disruptive quarter I have experienced in my career, with both the fastest decline in volumes followed by one of the most rapid increases in volumes in the company’s history,” he said.

Foote expressed pleasure, through, at seeing traffic rebound from its May nadir, which he attributed to a strengthening economy marked by the reopening of North American auto assembly plants and their accompanying finished vehicle traffic.

Although Foote said the trends are encouraging, he said it’s still too early to predict the direction of the economic recovery due to lingering uncertainty over the durability of the economic rebound and the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread.

CSX said carload trip plan performance was 80.5 percent, a decline from the first quarter of 6.1 points above the second quarter a year ago.

Intermodal trip plan performance was 94 percent, down 2.2 points from the first quarter but up from 89.9 percent a year ago.

Most of the falloff in trip plan compliance came in in June as volume began rebuilding and there were delays in recalling furloughed employees.

CSX dropped road train starts in line with the steep volume declines that began in March. But in April the railroad began moving its tonnage on fewer but longer trains, which cut train starts more deeply than the volume decline.

Train starts came within 7 percent of pre-pandemic levels but road train starts remained 17 percent below March levels.

Jamie Boychuk, executive vice president of operations, indicated that fewer train starts are likely to be permanent.

“We are mixing the auto network with our manifest and in some areas with our intermodal network,” he said. “And reducing those train starts … is going to be a good lasting effect as we move forward.”

The CSX workforce, although regaining numbers was 12 percent lower in the second quarter than it was in the same period in 2019.

The railroad has recalled hundreds of train and engine employees from furlough.

Mark Wallace, executive vice president of sales and marketing, said domestic intermodal volume began snapping back in June as retailers restocked store shelves and e-commerce sales were strong.

With some canceled sailing from Asia and elsewhere being reinstated, the outlook for international intermodal has also improved.

Wallace said the future of carload traffic hinges on the recovery of the industrial economy, which is reviving more slowly. He said coal volumes will continue to be challenged.

CSX Income Fell in 1st Quarter 2020

April 23, 2020

The economic downturn triggered in part by the COVID-19 pandemic led to CSX posting lower earnings for the first quarter of 2020.

The railroad’s operating income fell 3 percent to $1.17 billion and revenue dipped 5 percent to $2.85 billion.

Earnings per share was down 2 percent to $1 but the operating ratio set a first quarter record by improving 0.8 points to 58.7 percent.

Operating ratio is the percentage of revenue that is devoted to expenses.

Traffic for the quarter fell by 1 percent, much of that due to a 15 percent slump in coal shipments.

Merchandise traffic rose 2 percent and intermodal volume held steady.

Although domestic intermodal traffic rose, international intermodal shipments fell due to factory closures in China triggered by the pandemic.

Automotive and fertilizers traffic also posted losses.

CSX declined to provide a projection for its finances for the remainder of the year due to the uncertainty of the course of the pandemic.

However, CSX executives emphasized that the company’s finances remain strong. Nonetheless, CSX will reduce capital spending this year.

It is now expected to be between $1.6 billion to $1.7 billion. CSX plans to install the same amount of new rail this year but increase the amount of ballast that it will lay.

“These are unprecedented times. I’ve been through a lot in my career, from Black Monday to the Great Recession and a lot of other unsettling events. But nothing like this,” said CSX CEO James Foote during a conference call.

Foote said strong companies adapt to changing conditions by altering course and becoming even stronger.

“I am incredibly proud of the men and women of CSX who are working on the front lines,” Foote said. “They have once again shown what outstanding railroaders they are.”

Schedule tightening in the first quarter meant that carload trip-plan compliance fell 1.9 points to 80.7 percent while intermodal rose 0.7 points to 96.2 percent. The comparisons are with the fourth quarter of 2019.

Foote cited improved trip compliance during the first two weeks of April in saying service is currently the best it has ever been.

April traffic was down 20 percent through April 18. The railroad has stored 400 locomotives since the end of March and now has fewer than 2,000 active locomotives.

Three years ago CSX had almost 4,000 active locomotives on its roster.

The carrier has eliminated 50 daily merchandise trains and cut road train starts by 23 percent.

CSX officials said the company will continue to adjust its network as demand dictates and is ready to respond to increased volumes whenever the economy begins to recover.

Such operating metrics as average train speed, terminal dwell time, and car-miles per day set first-quarter records.

Safety metrics improved, compared with the fourth quarter as well as the first quarter of 2019, and officials said they were among the best in CSX history.

CSX Net Earnings, Revenue Down in 4th Quarter 2019

January 18, 2020

Cost cutting can only take a company so far. That is one takeaway from the CSX announcement this week that its net earnings and revenue declined in the fourth quarter of 2019 due to a 7 percent drop in freight traffic volumes.

Net earnings fell 9 percent to $771 million, or 99 cents per share, from $843 million, or $1.01 per share in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Revenue fell 8 percent to $2.9 billion from $3.1 billion. CSX said in a news release that one bright spot was that fourth-quarter expenses were down 9 percent year over year to $1.73 billion due to efficiency gains and volume-related savings.

Operating income declined 8 percent to $1.15 billion compared to the fourth quarter of 2018.

The Class 1 carrier said the lower volumes were in part driven by loss of coal traffic.

CSX did post a 60 percent operating ratio, a fourth quarter record. The operating ratio is the percentage of revenue that is devoted to expenses.

In the fourth quarter of 2018 the operating ratio had been 60.3 percent.

For 2019 as a whole, CSX generated net earnings of $3.33 billion, or $4.17 per share, versus 3.31 billion, or $3.84 per share, in 2018, an increase of 1 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

It said its full-year 2019 operating ratio of 58.4 percent set a U.S. Class I record, improving from the 2018 record result of 60.3 percent.

For the year, CSX traffic volume was down 4 percent with merchandise traffic flat, coal traffic down 5 percent, and intermodal falling by 8 percent.

CSX said much of the 17 percent decline in coal traffic in the fourth quarter of 2019 was due to fewer shipments of coal used to generate electricity. That market has been hindered by competition from natural gas.

Export coal fell due to reduced international shipments of both thermal and metallurgical coal as global benchmark prices fell.

Also falling was domestic and international intermodal shipments. CSX attributed that 7 percent decline to the closing of some low-density service lanes.

As far as the 3 percent falloff in merchandise traffic, CSX said chemicals were down due to reduced natural gas liquids, fly ash and sand shipments.

Agriculture and food products increased due to gains in ethanol, sweeteners and oil.

Automotive traffic fell due to a reduction in North American production while minerals increased due to higher shipments for highway projects.

Forest products dipped due to fewer pulp board shipments while fertilizer volume gained on short-haul phosphate shipments that offset by declines in long-haul fertilizer shipments.

Metals and equipment were down due to reduced steel, construction and scrap shipments.

In a conference call, CSX CEO James Foote sought to put a positive spin on the report by saying, “our service is the best it’s ever been and getting better.”

Mark Wallace, CSX’s executive vice president of sale and marketing, insisted that the railroad is gaining market share every day from trucks as a result.

Nonetheless, he said CSX does not foresee a contraction in trucking industry capacity that would spark an increase in truck rates that could prompt diversion of highway loads to intermodal.

Wallace also said CSX will hold the line on intermodal rates and refuse to chase volume to cutting price.

He said most of CSX’s domestic intermodal business is under long-term contracts.

In speaking to investors, Foote said traffic was hindered by a strike against General Motors last summer and the closing an oil refinery in Philadelphia following an explosion and fire.

“These are truly great results considering the industrial economy’s second half performance,” Foote said.

CSX management expects freight volume to continue to lag over the next few months due to a lackluster industrial economy.

There is a reduced global demand for thermal and metallurgical coal and low natural gas prices will depress domestic demand for coal.

The railroad’s management team said it expects to post growth numbers in 2020 in intermodal and merchandise traffic, but those will enable the carrier to overcome an expected continued decline in coal traffic.

For the year ahead, CSX is projecting revenue to fall by 2 percent compared to 2019. It has an objective of an operating ratio of 59 percent.

Capital expenses are expected to range between $1.6 billion and $1.7 billion, which would be similar to what has spent in recent years.

Foote said the improvements in service quality have enabled CSX to offer service to shippers that is “truck-like in consistency.”

If CSX is to compete against truckers is must offer a reliable service. He also played up his contention that CSX is less expensive than service and more friendly to the environment due to better fuel efficiency.

Jamie Boychuk, executive vice president of operations, said improvements in velocity have enabled the carrier to tighten some of its train schedules, which might negatively affect on-time performance in the first quarter.

CSX said its train velocity has improved by 12 percent with terminal dwell down 9 percent and car miles per day up 6 percent.

During the fourth quarter, trip plan compliance was 82.6 percent for carload traffic and 95.5 percent for intermodal shipments.

The same figures for the fourth quarter of 2018 were 67.3 percent and 73.4 percent respectively.

CSX said 92 percent of its trains departed on time and 85 percent arrived on time.

Those are improvements of 18 percent and 15 percent respectively from the fourth quarter of 2018.

During the 2019 the personal injury rate for CSX employees fell by 15 percent while the train accident rate improved by 41 percent.

Despite falling traffic volume and revenue, Railway Age described CSX’s fourth quarter results as solid because the earnings per share performance exceeded that projected by Wall Street stock analysts.

“However, weak 2020 guidance and top-line outlook were the larger story, with 2020 revenue to be adversely affected by lower coal volumes and yields,” wrote Cowen and Company Managing Director and Railway Age Wall Street Contributing Editor Jason Seidl.

Seidl said his firm has lowered its 2020 and 2021 earnings per share estimates for CSX.

CSX reported earnings per share of 99 cents for the fourth quarter, which beat the 96 cents per share expected on Wall Street.

Analysts had projected CSX would have operating income of $1.18 billion while the actual figure was $1.15 billion. Revenue at  $2.89 billion was slightly below the projected $2.91 billion.

The diminishing coal market is important, Seidl noted, because it is a high-margin business. CSX management expects to lose $300 million coal revenue this year.

Cowen is projecting that 2020 and 2021 earnings per share estimates for CSX will be $4.10 and $4.50 to account for CSX management’s new outlook. The projections had been $4.40 and $4.75, respectively.

CSX Sees Success in Winning Traffic From Trucks

November 7, 2019

Amid a steady stream of gloomy news and prognostications about falling railroad freight volumes, CSX CEO James Foote said this week that his carrier is starting to see some success in winning back business from truckers.

Speaking at the Baird 2019 Global Industrial Conference, Foote said CSX is starting to reverse the loss of business to highways.

“Our customers are coming to us, in many instances, and saying how can we ship more by rail?” Foote said.

He said improved service and lower rates than truck will help CSX regain market share.

“What it boils down to is running a really, really good railroad,” Foote said.

Foote said CSX’s merchandise volumes are outperforming the rest of the industry, which he said is a sign that the railroad has regained traffic from truckers.

Through Sept. 30 CSX merchandise traffic was up 1 percent while eastern rival Norfolk Southern has seen its merchandise volume fall 3 during the same period.

Foote expects CSX to post gains next year in domestic intermodal volumes but coal traffic whether for domestic use or exports, will remain challenged due to lower-priced natural gas and less global demand for metallurgical coal.

Foote said trip plan compliance for intermodal traffic has of late been in the 95 percent range while carload freight compliance has been 82.5 percent.

Noting that railroads have been losing market share of merchandise traffic to trucks for decades, Foote said that was because truckers provided better service while railroad service was poor.

“There is a tremendous amount of opportunity for us to grow our merchandise franchise, just tremendous,” Foote said.

Currently, railroads have an 8 percent share of the transportation business in North America.

Foote was reluctant to say if merchandise traffic at CSX could grow as fast as the overall economy or at least faster than the rate of industrial production because there is too much economic uncertainty, global trade tensions, and a slowing industrial economy.

An audience member asked Foote about CSX’s operating ratio, which was 56.8 percent in the third quarter and if it would remain in the mid-50s.

In response Foote said the OR is a measure of how well a railroad is growing revenue and controlling costs and he said he didn’t know if an OR of 56 percent or even 60 percent would enable CSX to produce consistent earnings growth year after year.

“It’s not a quest to get as low as you want it to be,” Foote said. “If somebody was going to give me an award for giving you a 55, I could probably get to a 55 tomorrow. But you’d have to chop off a whole bunch of business to do it, and that’s not what we’re here to do.”

CSX Revenue, Traffic Fell in 3rd Quarter

October 17, 2019

As expected, the third quarter profits of CSX fell due to flat operating income and falling revenue.

The carrier said on Wednesday that declines in intermodal and coal revenue  traffic drove the declines.

CSX reported operating income  of  $1.28 billion and a 5 percent decline in revenue to $2.97 billion.

Net income fell 4 percent to $856 million by earnings per share grew 3 percent to $1.08.

The operating ratio set a record by improving 1.9 points to 56.8 percent.

“I am extremely proud of our dedicated team of CSX railroaders for once again setting new records for operating efficiency, customer service, and safety this quarter,” CSX CEO James Foote said in a statement.

“These results reflect our continued commitment toward being the best run railroad in North America and providing our customers with best-in-class service.”

Merchandise revenue was flat while coal and intermodal combined were down 9 percent. Overall, traffic volume fell 5 percent in the quarter compared to the third quarter of 2018.

Carload trip plan compliance rose to 74.6 percent compared to 66.1 percent last year. Intermodal trip plan compliance was 94.2 percent compared to 79.8 percent in the third quarter of 2018.

Cars spent more time in yards but trains moved faster. The average terminal dwell was up 3 percent while average train speed was up 13 percent.

CSX operated an average of 87 trains per day with distributed power, up from just a dozen in the third quarter of 2018. This enabled CSX to post a 5 percent gain in fuel efficiency.

The personal injury rate dropped by 5 percent while the train accident rate plunged was down by 51 percent, a company record.

CSX also set a record for the fewest number of train accidents in a quarter.

CSX expects that when 2019 is over it will have seen a  revenue decline of 1 percent to 2 percent  but will have posted a sub-60 percent operating ratio and capital spending of between $1.6 billion and $1.7 billion.

CSX Sets Operating Ratio Record in 2nd Quarter

July 19, 2018

CSX announced on Wednesday that during the second quarter of 2018 it set a record for its lowest quarterly operating ratio and said that along with gains in profits and revenues are evidence that its scheduled railroading operations model has begun to pay off.

Net earnings were $877 million, or $1.01 per share, compared with $510 million, or 55 cents per share for the second quarter of 2017.

The operating ratio fell to 58.6 percent, which was a drop of 4.9 points compared to the operating ratio of the same quarter of 2018.

In a news release, CSX said the operating ratio announced this week is adjusted for the impact of one-time restructuring costs.

In a statement, CSX CEO Jim Foote called the operating ratio “clearly the lowest ever for CSX and, I believe, the lowest ever by a U.S. railroad.”

Revenue increased 6 percent, to $3.1 billion for the quarter.

Earnings per share rose 84 percent, to $1.01, topping Wall Street estimates of 87 cents per share.

Analysts credited the improved showing to the effects of tax reform and share buybacks.

“Two words sum up everything: Great performance,” Foote said during an earnings call with investors and Wall Street analysts.

Freight traffic on CSX rose 2 percent for the quarter, led by a 7 percent rise in coal shipments. However, CSX said utility coal was down due to competition from natural gas.

CSX officials expect a strong export coal market to continue for metallurgical and thermal coal.

A boost in international intermodal traffic enabled CSX to post a 2 percent in total intermodal traffic which came despite losses in domestic intermodal volume.

CSX executives project that revenue will increase by mid single-digits compared with their previous forecast of being up slightly.

Foote said the change in outlook came because of expectations for continued strong export coal shipments, higher fuel prices, and a healthy U.S. economy.

Chief Financial Officer Frank Lonegro said that CSX handled more freight with 9 percent fewer crew starts and 13 percent fewer locomotives.

The smaller locomotive and car fleet size meant that the railroad was able to cut its shop craft workforce by 18 percent compared with a year ago.

Overall, CSX’s costs fell during the second quarter by 8 percent with labor expenses dropping by 10 percent.

The improved operating ratio was helped by service improvements that saw train velocity up 7 percent, dwell time down 11 percent and train length up 13 percent on a year over year basis.

By commodity, CSX logged year-over-year second-quarter revenue increases in chemicals (up 7 percent), automotive (7 percent), agriculture and food products (up 2 percent), minerals (up 7 percent), forest products (up 11 percent), and metals and equipment (up 11 percent).

Fertilizer revenue declined 5 percent on an 18 percent drop in volume compared with the same quarter in 2017.

Year over year, coal revenue and volume each rose 7 percent, while intermodal revenue rose 9 percent on a 2 percent increase in volume.

Cost Cutting Boosts CSX in 1st Quarter

April 19, 2018

CSX credited cost cutting and its scheduled railroading operating model for enabling it to post higher first quarter quarterly earnings when compared to last year.

During the first quarter of this year CSX said its profit was nearly double that of the first quarter of 2017.

For the first quarter of 2018 CSX had net earnings of $695 million, or 78 cents per share, compared with $362 million, or 39 cents per share in the same quarter last year.

The net earnings per share beat estimates by some Wall Street analysts of 65 to 66 cents per share.

The operating ratio for the quarter was 63.7 percent compared to 73.2 percent a year ago.

In a statement, CSX CEO James M. Foote said the performance came despite some challenging weather conditions.

Reducing expenses played a key role in the company’s first quarter performance.

Although revenue was flat at $2.88 billion, expenses fell 13 percent on a year over year or 8 percent when excluding prior year restructuring charges to $1.8 billion. Operating income rose 36 percent to $1.04 billion from $769 million a year ago.

Overall, CSX traffic fell 4 percent during the quarter but the railroad said that was offset by a 4-percent increase in revenue per unit.

CSX merchandise traffic was down 8 percent and coal declined 2 percent.

By commodity group, CSX said that chemicals declined 2 percent due to reduced fly ash, plastics and energy-related shipments.

Automotive was affected by lower North American vehicle production and dropped 4 percent.

Agricultural and food products fell 8 percent with much of the loss in ethanol and export grain. Fertilizer declined by 10 percent as a result of the effects of weather and the closing of a customer’s facility.

Domestic coal traffic fell by 4 percent decline but was somewhat offset by a favorable export coal market environment.

Intermodal traffic rose by 3 percent, helped by strong international service growth.

In terms of service metrics, yard productivity was up 20 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to a year ago when measured by cars processed per hour.

Train lengths were up 5 percent and road train starts were down 8 percent, which CSX officials attributed to a 20 percent gain in locomotive productivity when measured by gross ton-miles per available horsepower.

CSX has placed more than 800 locomotives in storage, thus cutting its active locomotive fleet by 23 percent when compared to this time last year.

During the first quarter, CSX reported average train speed rose 22 percent compared to the first quarter of 2017. Terminal dwell, meanwhile, fell 10 percent.

On-time departures were steady at 81 percent, while on-time arrivals improved to 57 percent, up from 52 percent a year ago.

In looking ahead, CSX said it expects revenue to be up slightly, with positive momentum heading into the second quarter. The railroad also expects to continue trimming it operating ratio.

CSX said that its performance has been adversely affected by unfavorable performance metrics at other Class I railroads.

Foote said CSX would not change its outlook for flat traffic volume this year. “We’re not going to chase volume,” he said.

Rather he said CSX is focusing on ensuring adequate rates and methodical, rational growth.

It might be willing to cut freight rates for Southern utilities in an effort to keep them from converting coal-fired power plants to natural gas.

During the first quarter, CSX spent more than twice as much on share buybacks ($836 million, a 224 percent increase) as it did on capital expenses ($368 million, a 17 percent decrease).

The company has said it is seeking to buy back $5 billion of its stock during the next three years.

Reading Between the Lines of How CSX Management Projects Itself to the World

March 7, 2018

CSX executives revealed last week at long last their vision for their company. They were supposed to have done it last fall, but three top-ranking vice presidents left during a management shakeup. Then CEO E. Hunter Harrison died.

But things have now stabilized. CEO James M. Foote and his management team put forth the most optimistic and rosy scenarios that they dared to spin.

Hovering over those presentations in New York City, though was Harrison.

A year ago Harrison and the hedge fund Mantle Ridge were closing in on their takeover of CSX, a feat they pulled off with a relatively small amount of money and in a short amount of time.

Harrison had great plans for the hidebound CSX. He brought the precision scheduled railroading model that he had implemented on the Illinois Central and then at Canadian National and Canadian Pacific.

Foote and his team went to great lengths to show that Harrison’s vision is their vision, too. Harrison received the reverence normally reserved for a company founder or elder statesman of much longer tenure.

Harrison had a lot of work to do. Independent railroad industry analyst Tony Hatch and Trains magazine columnist Fred Frailey have described CSX as long hindered by adherence to the practices of its  predecessor railroads, meaning it was  averse to change and rather bureaucratic.

Frailey said ormer CEO John Snow as uninspiring and his successor, Michael Ward, sought to move CSX forward but was bewildered as to how to get it out of its rut.

No wonder the CSX board of directors gave Harrison a chance even if, to quote his successor Foote, Harrison engaged in “carpet bombing” the railroad with fast-paced changes that led to widespread service failures that drew the ire of shippers and the attention of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

But all of that is behind CSX now, or so management wanted those attending or watching the presentations in New York to believe.

Some have bought it. Writing in Progressive Railroading, Hatch quoted an  investor as saying this was the best CSX meeting he had seen in a decade of watching the railroad.

The current management team laid out  goal of a 60 percent operating ratio by 2020, described a new intermodal business strategy, and pointed to the huge buckets of money it will fill from sales of unneeded real estate and rail lines.

Having a plan and making it work are not always, though, the same thing. Truth is every railroad company talks about growing traffic and all of them are facing challenges finding it.

Hatch said that if CSX is to increase its carload and intermodal business it will have to provide consistent and improving service.

Frailey didn’t comment directly on the New York conference, instead referring readers to articles written by the magazine’s writer covering the story, Bill Stephens.

Those articles, Frailey correctly observed, did well in showing how CSX seeks to project itself to the world.

Yet Frailey said some industry observers with whom he regularly corresponds have been debating the endgame that CSX management is seeking and it isn’t necessarily to grow traffic and become North America’s best railroad.

Those observers think CSX plans to eventually liquidate the company.

Frailey said the case for liquidation goes as follows: “The railroad borrows money to buy back an astounding $5 billion of stock, making every dollar of profit worth more to shareholders who stick around because the same amount of earnings is spread among many fewer shares . . . Freight rates are being jacked up to cover fully allocated costs, a direction I’m told only Union Pacific has gone up to now—milk the cow until it collapses, the saying goes. Its carload business has been steadily eroding since the turn of the century.”

The veteran journalist who has written about railroads since the 1960s said  he understands that CSX has reduced its marketing staff to a hard core operation.

That hardly sounds like a railroad that will be able to aggressively go to find new business. Perhaps CSX expects that by offering a superior product that shippers will come to it begging to do business.

The word “liquidate” that some of Frailey’s contacts used to describe CSX’s endgame is unfortunate because it conjures up selling assets and going away.

Perhaps a better description might have been to break up the railroad much as Illinois Central Gulf slimmed down in the 1970s and 1980s until it emerged as largely a Chicago-New Orleans core with a few arteries connecting to it.

Yes, some rail lines were abandoned, but most wound up in the hands of short line and regional railroads.

It was that railroad on which Harrison first implemented his precision scheduled railroading model.

Frailey isn’t sure what to make of what CSX is doing, but doesn’t believe Foote isn’t prepared to do the job thrust upon him following Harrison’s death.

Foote was in the right place at the right time and for now CSX and its shareholders will let him sit at the throttle and take the EHH train a little further down the line. But it is Harrison’s train orders that Foote is following and not those Foote wrote himself.

Shareholders can be a fickle lot. Just this week Canadian National, a railroad described in most circles as highly successful, pushed out CEO Luc Jobin after the company hit a rough patch.

What I see happening at CSX is that management is trying to walk a fine line between pleasing investors and shippers and keeping at bay a few interested bystanders who have the ability to make life easy or miserable for a company.

Cost cutting and asset sales will only take a company so far in that endeavor. Of course growing traffic makes everyone happy, but is CSX prepared to spend the time and money needed to make that happen. It is so much easier to sell property and lightly used rail routes.

In theory, a company exists to serve its customers because without them you don’t have a company. But theory also says that a company exists to make money for its shareholders.

The two objectives are not necessarily in opposition. Arguably, you can’t make money for shareholders unless you provide a product or service that someone is willing to buy.

But you can’t improve your product or seek to sell more of it without spending money on that, too.

Management has always existed to reconcile those sometimes opposing forces.

The history of the railroad industry is filled with tales of financiers milking companies and leaving them behind. There is reason to believe that CSX is tilting toward enabling the financiers to make a financial killing before moving on to something else.

To quote a line from the John Mellencamp song Peaceful World, “These are just words and words are OK. It’s what you do and not what you say, if you’re not part of the future then get out of the way.”

We will know in time what the future of CSX is but take with some healthy skepticism how CSX projects that to the world.