NS New England Intermodal and Automotive Traffic Up Despite 3Q Numbers

Norfolk Southern this week reported financial results for the quarter ended September 30, 2020. During the quarter, the company achieved net income of $569 million, diluted earnings per share of $2.22, and an operating ratio of 66.5%. These results include a previously announced $99 million non-cash impairment charge. Excluding the effects of the impairment charge, adjusted third-quarter net income was $643 million, adjusted diluted earnings per share were $2.51, and the adjusted operating ratio was 62.5%, which reflects a 240 basis point improvement compared with third-quarter 2019.

While those numbers are not on par with prior year revenue and volumes, the New England region is seeing a boost in both intermodal and automotive traffic that is marketed by Norfolk Southern.  Mechanicville and Ayer intermodal terminals have seen a boom in container traffic as NS plans to begin running a fully double stacked train between Chicago and Mechanicville.  Single stacks would still be required east of Mechanicville to Ayer.  The traffic has rebounded following the Hoosac disruption earlier this year and includes both JB Hunt and EMP containers with train lengths currently around 8,000 feet regularly.

On top of the intermodal rebound, automotive traffic has been surging to Ayer and Davisville for Norfolk Southern, as that market also returns.  The 22K/23K had been moving the autorack traffic almost exclusively, however NS in the past week or two has begun filling out the 16R/11R with autoracks to and from Ayer/Davisville.  There has been some talk of returning a solid autorack train to the corridor, however that has not yet come to fruition.

An NS statement from the 3Q earnings report:  “Since launching our Precision Scheduled Railroading strategy, we have significantly enhanced Norfolk Southern’s operational and financial performance and delivered superior returns for shareholders,” said James A. Squires, Norfolk Southern chairman, president and CEO. “Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our industry and the broader economy, we quickly executed a plan to align our assets and resources with demand and generate sustainable margin improvement. In addition to maintaining outstanding service levels with fewer resources and reduced headcount, we successfully idled our fifth hump in the last five quarters, helping Norfolk Southern achieve record productivity. With the resilience of our railroad, strong customer relationships and the hard work of our team, including new Chief Operating Officer and PSR veteran Cindy Sanborn, we are confident in our ability to achieve our goal of a 60% operating ratio with more to come, while delivering enhanced free cash flow and further value creation for Norfolk Southern shareholders.”

Third-quarter summary

  • Railway operating revenues of $2.5 billion decreased 12% compared with third-quarter 2019, driven by a 7% decline in total volume and 5% decline in revenue per unit.
  • Railway operating expenses were $1.7 billion, including a $99 million non-cash impairment charge related to an equity-method investment.
  • Excluding the impairment charge, adjusted operating expenses declined $278 million, or 15%, compared with third-quarter 2019, driven by lower compensation and benefits, fuel, purchased services, materials, and the absence of last year’s $32 million receivable write-off.
  • Income from railway operations was $840 million and the operating ratio was 66.5%.
  • Excluding the impairment charge, adjusted income from railway operations was $939 million, while the adjusted operating ratio improved to 62.5% versus the third-quarter record of 64.9% set in 2019.