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Union Pacific: we had a very good December after all, and our OR will tick down

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

Union Pacific (NYSE: UPS) had a strong enough December that it now believes its full-year operating ratio for 2018 will be improved.

In a Wednesday 8-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Union Pacific (UP) said it expects to report a “record full-year” operating ratio of 62.7 percent. That is just one-tenth of one percentage point better than in 2017.

But that’s not what the company predicted as recently as November. On November 29, at a conference held by Stephens Inc., UP executive vice president and COO Robert Knight said there would be no improvement in operating revenue for full-year 2018 operations.

In the SEC statement, UP said the improvement in late 2018 that is leading to the small improvement in operating revenue was created by “higher revenue, lower diesel fuel prices and improved cost performance.” It also quoted Knight as saying that December car loadings were “stronger than expected, led by international container imports.”

But back in November, the outlook was more pessimistic. “While volume growth is still strong, we are not seeing the normal seasonal ramp-up in our export grain business due to the tariffs and foreign competition,” Knight said, according to a transcript of his presentation. He spoke also of the changes that UP had made as part of its Unified Plan 2020, UP’s move toward precision railroading. “While we are confident the actions we are taking will produce near-term results, the timing of these initiatives may not support an improved operating ratio performance for the full year 2018,” Knight said back in November.

While the improvement in operating revenue is tiny, it is significant in that the companies that have moved toward precision railroading – UP and Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) – have been pressured to do so by the sub-60 operating revenues posted by CSX (NYSE: CSX), which is all in with precision railroading, as well as Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) and Canadian National (NYSE: CNI). Norfolk Southern is expected to disclose in February just what it intends to do on its precision railroading initiative, while Union Pacific made clear on its latest earnings call back in October that it is fully committed to the model.

Union Pacific’s stock closed Wednesday at $150.36 but was reported up after hours 1.8 percent by SeekingAlpha. However, Barchart was reporting before the Thursday opening that the stock was up just 0.4 percent.

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.