NEW YORK — CSX Corp., the nation’s third-largest railroad, said Tuesday the economy improved modestly in the fourth-quarter, but its shipping volume dropped from a year ago as demand for coal to produce electricity remained weak.
CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., said fourth-quarter net earnings rose 23 percent compared to a year ago — a period weighed down by a loss related to the company’s sale of the money-losing Greenbrier resort. Excluding that year-ago loss, earnings from continuing operations fell 16 percent.
Shares fell more than 3 percent in after-hours trading, after closing up 47 cents in the regular session to close at $50.51.
Railroads are seen as gauges for nation’s economic health because they carry so many consumer and industrial goods — everything from toys to lumber to trucks. Analysts look to CSX, the first railroad to report fourth-quarter earnings, and its competitors to measure how the larger economy is faring.
The railroad said gains in its transfers from trucks — a key indicator of consumer spending — and the automotive segment were more than offset by declines in shipments of coal and food. Stimulus programs including Cash for Clunkers and inventory restocking helped boost consumer and auto-related segments.
Coal shipments were hit by a steep downturn in electricity demand, as industrial production shrank and consumers turned off the lights to save money. CSX also hauled less coal because of the ongoing slowdown in construction, since certain types of coal are used to make steel. In addition, many utilities turned to natural gas to run power plants as the price for that fuel dropped. CSX expects demand for coal from electric utilities to remain weak well into this year.
The company, which operates its blue and yellow locomotives from Canada to Florida and west to the Mississippi River, reported net earnings of $305 million, or 77 cents per share, compared with $247 million, or 63 cents per share a year earlier.
Revenue fell 13 percent to $2.32 billion.
Thomson Reuters says analysts expected profit of 76 cents per share on revenue of $2.39 billion.
CSX’s full-year earnings fell 16 percent to $1.15 billion, or $2.91 per share. Revenue for 2009 dropped 20 percent to $9.04 billion.
The railroad’s larger Western rivals Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe are scheduled to report earnings Thursday.
Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at email@example.com.