Container volume growth on the East Coast of North America continues to outpace growth on the West Coast, despite longer ocean transit times and higher prices from Asia.
But the eastern railroads are not necessarily the beneficiaries here. CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) has cut many intermodal lanes, reducing intermodal volumes by 8% year-to-date, which followed a similar drop the prior year – the largest drop of any Class 1 railroad. Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC), on the other hand, moves the most intermodal freight as a percentage of total carloadings (55%), but has struggled to deliver operating ratio improvements as average intermodal rates fell from $1.78/mile to $1.47/mile this year (INTRM.USA).
First, price action in the spot markets for 40-foot containers from Asia to North America has responded to volume growth on the East Coast. Over the course of September, rates to West Coast ports (FBXD.CNAW) fell while they were flat or up to the East Coast ports (FBXD.CNAE), widening the ‘Panama spread’ (FBXD.PANA), or the difference between the rates.
A widening Panama spread has the effect of making West Coast ports relatively more attractive. U.S. Customs imported shipments to Savannah (CSTM.SAV) are at one of the highest levels they’ve been at in two years, while the same data for Los Angeles (CSTM.LAX) was higher for most of that period than it is today.
But the railroads that have pursued intermodal the most aggressively have underperformed against their main competitors, especially in the case of the eastern rails, CSX and Norfolk Southern. After CSX chief executive officer Hunter Harrison’s death in December 2017, Jim Foote took over, and described in earnings calls how the railroad’s intermodal network was almost a separate franchise that had been left nearly untouched by Harrison’s reorganization of the rest of CSX’s operations.
Foote removed about 7% of CSX’s intermodal volumes as he ‘rationalized’ the network to focus on high-density lanes where he saw an opportunity to improve service and yield by reducing the number of touches involved in CSX’s handling of the freight. The railroad was able to gets its operating ratio (OR), or the percentage of revenue consumed by operating expenses, down to 57.4% in the second quarter of 2019.
Norfolk Southern, on the other hand, is more committed to its intermodal business. NSC’s intermodal volumes are down only 2.4% year-to-date, compared to CSX’s 8%, the smallest drop of any U.S. railroad. But weak trucking spot prices (DATVF.VNU), down 16.4% year-to-date, have pulled intermodal rates down with them. Norfolk Southern was one of the last railroads to embrace the cost-cutting and efficiency initiatives of precision scheduled railroading (PSR), but so far has not seen the dramatic early-stage benefits that typically come with it.
“While the recent network changeover occurred without major incident, we are nonetheless puzzled by the seeming divergence in how the margin improvement story is unfolding at NSC versus prior PSR iterations (including what we have seen so far from UNP),” wrote Credit Suisse equities analyst Allison Landry in a July note on Norfolk Southern. “Typically, the step-function change in the OR occurs swiftly and in the magnitude of several hundred basis points of improvement within the first 12-18 months of implementation.”
Norfolk Southern’s large intermodal business, generally understood to be lower-margin than other commodity types, may be part of the problem. The other issue is that many railroad analysts think that intermodal is less competitive on the East Coast, that it doesn’t make as much economic sense to shippers, because average lengths of haul are shorter. If a shipper is moving freight from Los Angeles to Chicago, a distance of 2,000 miles, the shipper can save far more money by using intermodal instead of truck that it can on a lane like Savannah to Chicago, which is only about 970 miles.
Shippers who choose intermodal over truck are normally trading service for price, but for some customers, the trade-off is only worth it on long-haul lanes that produce bigger cost savings. The chart below shows relative year-to-date growth in long-haul trucking tender volumes for Savannah, Los Angeles, Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Houston.
Savannah’s long-haul trucking volumes have grown the fastest by far, nearly twice as fast as those of Los Angeles.
Part of the railroads’ struggle with intermodal this year – across the Class 1s, intermodal volumes are down 4.1% year-to-date – is caused by relatively soft freight demand and relatively loose trucking capacity. The rails have taken advantage of thinner volumes to reduce dwell times and run their trains faster, but those service metrics could deteriorate if volumes came back in a big way, for example if a resolution to trade disputes came earlier than expected, and re-accelerating economic growth sparked a surge in consumption.
In that scenario, railroad terminals could become snarled, trains might be delayed, and healthy margins might prove to be elusive as time-sensitive shippers prefer to pay premium prices to trucking carriers instead of the rails.
“Rails remain hotly debated,” observed Deutsche Bank equities analyst Amit Mehrotra in an October 3 investor note. “Investor bias is positive, but the magnitude of the volume decline is concerning, and as a result, third quarter results will be critical to the near/midterm outlook for Rail shares. In this sense, near-term conviction is significantly shaken, but long-term thesis still holds.”
Efficiency differences between port operators, the environmental regulation of drayage providers in Southern California, persistent labor disputes, and competitive container rates are all driving intermodal volumes to the East Coast. At present, it appears that CSX is largely uninterested in capturing that freight, Norfolk Southern may have more of it than it actually wants – NSC guided for flat intermodal volume growth for the full year – and that trucking carriers could stand to benefit the most.