Analysts surveyed by FactSet expected Union Pacific to report earnings per share of $2.37 on $5.7 billion in revenue.
Union Pacific officials are optimistic about the year ahead. "There's still a lot of year ahead of us, but we are seeing signs of gradual economic improvement, and we're encouraged by the opportunities it presents," said Jack Koraleski, Union Pacific's chairman and CEO. The number of carloads railroads carry is considered an indicator of the health of the overall economy.
Weather will be a factor in Union Pacific's results. Agriculture shipments vary based on the size of the harvest. Utilities burn more coal during a hot summer to satisfy electricity demand for air conditioning. Higher demand for coal would boost coal shipments.
This winter's cold slowed railroad traffic nationwide, although Union Pacific appeared to handle the weather challenges better than eastern railroad CSX, which reported a 14 percent drop in quarterly profit earlier this week.
Union Pacific added 550 employees and 600 locomotives during the first quarter because the cold temperatures forced it to use shorter trains and shift some switching operations to different locations. That contributed to expenses growing 3 percent to $3.78 billion.
Union Pacific said its average train speed slowed 7 percent to 24.5 mph and the average amount of time freight cars sat in rail yards grew 12 percent to 30.7 hours.
Edward Jones analyst Logan Purk said Union Pacific's results were impressive given the severe weather.
"It speaks to their ability to run an efficient railroad," Purk said.
Union Pacific hauled 5 percent more carloads of freight in the quarter. Agricultural shipments grew 13 percent to lead all freight categories but industrial products improved 9 percent and coal shipments grew 7 percent.
Coal demand has been weak for several years as some utilities switched from coal to natural gas to take advantage of relatively low natural gas prices.
Union Pacific Corp. operates 32,400 miles of track in 23 states from the Midwest to the West and Gulf coasts.
Its stock slipped 88 cents to $187.27 in morning trading Thursday.
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Union Pacific Corp.: www.up.com