Jan 24, 2023

Union Pacific 4Q profit slips 4% on weather, hiring problems

Posted Jan 24, 2023 5:57 PM
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Image courtesy of Pixabay

AP Business Writer

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Union Pacific's fourth-quarter profit slipped 4% as severe winter weather snarled shipments in late December and the railroad continued to struggle to improve its operations enough to handle all the cargo businesses want to ship.

The Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad said it earned $1.6 billion, or $2.67 per share, in the fourth quarter. That's down from $1.7 billion, or $2.66 per share, a year ago.

Union Pacific said its revenue grew 8% to $6.2 billion in the quarter as it increased prices, charged more fuel surcharges and delivered 1% more freight, but its expenses were up 14% at $3.8 billion.

UP Chairman and CEO Lance Fritz said the "revenue growth was more than offset by elevated operating expenses from operational inefficiencies and a higher inflationary environment."

The results did not meet Wall Street expectations. The average estimate of seven analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for earnings of $2.75 per share. UP's share price fell more than 3% to $203.35 in midday trading after the results were released.

Most key performance measures deteriorated during the quarter as the railroad continued to have a hard time hiring enough employees in key locations. The railroad's average headcount is up 4% at 31,120 as it has been hiring throughout the past year, but it still needs more crews and maintenance workers in certain locations. Executives said about 600 additional workers are currently in training.

Union Pacific said freight car velocity declined 3% to 191 daily miles per car and locomotive productivity was down 5% during the quarter.

Edward Jones analyst Jeff Windau said he anticipated the ongoing hiring challenges and pressure from fuel costs that were up 43%. The weather impact was the surprise in the results. Going forward, the staffing situation should improve as UP hires and trains more workers and fuel prices will likely ease.

Investment manager Louis Navellier, who holds UP stock in his funds, said fuel costs clearly hurt the railroad's bottom line. He said he had hoped the railroads might be able to pick up additional grain volume because the low water levels on the Mississippi River last fall limited how much barges could handle, but it looks like the railroad didn't have much capacity to take on that business.

Heading into 2023, the railroad said it still expects shipping volume to grow faster than industrial production, but the current forecast calls for industrial production to be down by half a percent this year amid recession fears.

Fritz said he expects the railroad's performance to continue improving in 2023 as it works to eliminate the delayed deliveries and other service problems that its customers complained about last year.

Even with the service problems last year, the railroad said its 2022 profit was up 7% to nearly $7 billion, or $11.21 per share, from $6.5 billion, or $9.95 per share, the year before.