Truckload carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services managed to come out ahead in the first quarter of 2010, with 21 percent increase in intermodal volumes, positive truck operating income and improved results in its Dedicated Contract Services segment
, the company said in its earnings report. Net earnings were up 21 percent to $37.5 million, or 29 cents a share, versus earnings of $30.8 million, or 24 cents a share, during the prior year quarter.

Meanwhile, the company's total operating revenue was $845 million, a 17 percent increase from $723 million for the first quarter 2009.

"The freight recession we have experienced for over three years, showed signs of yielding to moderate volume improvements throughout the current quarter," said Kirk Thompson, JBHT president and CEO. "We believe that this is partly attributable to increases in our customers' supply chain activities and partly due to a continued shrinkage of viable capacity. Spot market rates increased in the current quarter, another sign of improving transportation economics, which has historically led to improved contract rates."

In addition to increased load volumes, the intermodal segment posted revenue of $469 million, up 20 percent from the year-ago period. Operating income was $47.5 million, a 15 percent gain.

Stifel Nicolaus analysts had estimated the company's first quarter earnings to be at 25 cents a share, with the expectation that contract pricing pressure would compress intermodal margins more. In addition, with intermodal revenue per load down about 8 percent, the analysts expected intermodal margins to be worse.

Within the company's truck segment, revenue gained 11 percent to $113 million, as overall business demand strengthened, according to JBHT. Operating revenue was $0.6 million compared to a loss of $5.8 million in the first quarter 2009.

"We refined our network and reduced our tractor count over the past few quarters, which allowed us to implement cost control measures resulting in reduced wages, lower driver turnover and hiring expenses, lower empty miles and better fuel efficiency," the company said in its statement.

Stifel Nicolaus also attributes the company's positive performance to greater fuel surcharge collections, with $48.7 million more fuel surcharge revenue in the first quarter of 2010 than the same quarter of 2009.