Cheap natural gas and environmental laws are driving utilities away from coal.  As more coal-fired plants shift to natural gas, we expect the drop in demand for coal will affect railroads, such as CSX Corporation (NYSE:CSX), Norfolk Southern Corporation (NYSE:NSC), and Union Pacific Corporation (NYSE:UNP), which transport coal to these utilities. In its fourth quarter and financial year 2011 results announced last month, CSX Corporation reported 3% year-on-year decline in volume of coal transported, even as it realized a 10% growth in annual revenues to $11.74 billion backed by core pricing gains, greater fuel surcharges and slight increase total volume compared to last year. 
We have revised our estimate price for CSX Corporation to $27, which is around 28% above the current market price. We have updated our model with the latest earnings release, made adjustments to the volume of coal moved by U.S. Class I rails and changed the discount rate for the company to account for increased market volatility and uncertainty.
Declines in coal volume may bring down profits
Domestic volumes for coal decreased 10% in the fourth quarter compared to last year quarter, even as the company registered a 13% increase in revenues from coal. Volumes of coal exported increased 31% on a comparable basis.
Lower coal demand for electricity generation was the major reason for decline domestically. In line with company’s projections, we believe that demand for coal might face challenges this year. We think that strong exports, which boosted the coal volumes in 2011, might not aid coal traffic as Australian coal production levels return to normal after severe weather conditions faced last year. Coal freight makes up almost 32% of our valuation price for the stock.
You can also read about the impact of lower coal in our article CSX Worth $34, But Too Dependent on King Coal
Higher oil prices will boost revenue
Soaring oil prices will contribute to revenue growth for the company in the form of higher fuel surcharges that railroads charge to their customers to recover incremental fuel costs. Increased fuel recovery of $117 million contributed to growth in revenues totaling $2.95 billion in the last quarter and offset the impact of higher costs. We believe the ability of rail carriers to recover fuel costs will benefit them, but the assistance may be limited by their ability shift to burden on their customers without hurting the volumes transported. In addition to this, higher oil prices make rail a more attractive method of transporting goods over trucking.
Growth momentum in the economy
The recovery in the U.S. economy led the railroad to higher profits last year. An increase in economic activity, consumer confidence that boosted consumer spending, demand for motor vehicles and coal exports helped the company realize 1% growth in total volumes moved. We expect that as the U.S. economy slowly recovers and the positive momentum builds up, the revenue and profits of railroads will rise from the increased economic activity.
The company expects expansion in volumes to continue this year as the economy recuperates. In its outlook for the year, the rail carrier is hopeful that categories representing 71% of the volume it carries will fare well in 2012 backed by higher consumer demand, industrial activity, expected agricultural produce and greater highway truck conversions. With its expansion and infrastructure development plans in place, we believe that the company remains poised to gain as the economy recovers. Maersk business has given the right start to the year as it will likely result in expansion of intermodal revenues for the company.Notes:
- Weak natgas pushes Florida utility to sell tons of coal, Reuters [↩]
- CSX Announces Record Fourth-Quarter and Full-Year 2011 Earnings per Share, CSX News Releases [↩]