(Adds context on efficiency, detail from conference call)
TORONTO, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Canadian National Railway Co reported better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings on Tuesday and boosted its dividend, but lagged its main Canadian rival when it came to a key efficiency measure.
CN Rail raised its quarterly dividend 25 percent to 31.25 Canadian cents per common share, and said it is aiming to increase shipments of crude oil and frac sand in 2015 despite a steep decline in the price of oil.
“There’s a lot of investments that are being made by our customers in the energy markets,” said Chief Executive Claude Mongeau on a call with analysts and investors.
But Mongeau added that “there will be uncertainty. The price is obviously a key factor.”
Canada’s biggest railway said it moved 128,000 carloads of crude and 89,000 carloads of frac sand in 2014, and sees a combined increase of 75,000 carloads in 2015. In the fourth quarter about 75 percent of its crude was Canadian.
Last week, Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd reported an operating ratio of 59.8 percent for the fourth quarter, and on Tuesday CN said its ratio had improved 4.1 percentage points to 60.7 percent. The operating ratio expresses operating costs as a percentage of revenue, so lower figures indicate more efficient operations.
CP has lagged CN’s operating ratio on an annual basis since 1996, but the gap between the two railways has narrowed significantly under Chief Executive Hunter Harrison, who previously led CN Rail.
Harrison was widely credited with improving CN’s efficiency during his tenure there, though the company has made significant improvements under his successor, Mongeau.
CP’s weak performance, measured by its operating ratio, was the focus of a 2012 proxy fight that unseated CP’s chief executive and led to Harrison’s appointment.
Net income rose to C$844 million ($681 million), or C$1.03 a share, from C$635 million, or 76 Canadian cents, a year earlier. Revenue rose to C$3.21 billion from C$2.75 billion.
Analysts, on average, had expected earnings of 97 Canadian cents a share on revenue of C$3.12 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
$1 = $1.24 Canadian Reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli, David Gregorio and Gunna Dickson