UPDATED -- The third quarter earnings season continued on Thursday with the release of reports showing more trucking companies had lower earnings compared to a year ago. Much of the blame was placed on lower rates, less freight and excess trucking capacity.

Heartland Express Inc. (NASDAQ:HTLD) reported net income of $12.5 million, or 15 cents per share, down from $15.1 million, or 17 cents per share, a year earlier. Net income is 17% lower from a year earlier, and earnings per share missed a consensus estimate from analysts by 1 cent.

Revenue for the most recent period totaled $149.3 million, compared to $182.5 million in the third quarter of 2015.

Operating income dropped $4.9 million to $19.9 million, mainly due to the current operating environment challenges on freight volume and pricing, according to the Iowa-based company.

“The results achieved during the quarter and year-to-date have been hard fought,” said CEO Michael Gerdin. “We have continued to experience downward pressure on freight rates due to the softness in freight volumes resulting from the available capacity in the industry.”

However, he pointed out the company has continued to show year-over-year improvement in its operating ratio, excluding certain items, for both the third quarter and the year to date results.

“We were able to generate another quarter of solid cash flows from operations, which allowed us to increase our cash reserves and pay for capital expenditures while remaining debt free,” Gerdin said. “This allows us to operate profitably and maintain an efficient fleet of equipment, while keeping resources in reserve to capitalize on future investment opportunities that align with our operating strategy and our corporate values."

Werner Profit Sinks By 41%

Meantime, Werner Enterprises Inc. (NASDAQ:WERN) reported third quarter net income fell 41% from a year ago to $18.9 million. Earnings per share moved lower to 26 cents from 44 cents, meeting a consensus estimate from analysts.

This margin is much larger than the 5% drop in revenue, hitting $508.7 million, while trucking revenue minus fuel surcharges fell 7% to $336.7 million. Operating income plummeted 45% to $29.1 million in the third quarter for the Oklahoma-based business.

“Third quarter 2016 freight demand showed gradual improvement from the weak second quarter freight market,” Werner said in a statement. “We believe part of this improvement was industry-specific and part was company-specific.”

For instance, during June, to take advantage of the strengthening dedicated market, it moved 150 trucks from its one-way truckload business, “lessening the need to find freight for their trucks in the more challenged one-way market.” In September, it moved an additional 100 trucks from one-way truckload into dedicated.

“Freight volumes and transactional spot market pricing in the one-way truckload market improved in third quarter 2016 from the lower levels in second quarter 2016,” Werner said. “We reduced our spot market exposure from elevated levels in second quarter 2016 to more typical levels in third quarter 2016.”

Despite this, Werner said, “excess supply of industry trucks relative to sluggish freight demand created a market in which customers pushed harder for contractual rate decreases.” Also it said quarter 2016 freight demand showed gradual improvement from the weak second quarter freight market.

The company said it chose to exit from certain contractual business that would have required significant contractual rate decreases for the next year, “since we believed that this pricing was not sustainable and that freight market conditions would begin to show improvement.”

Werner said while it avoided mid-single digit percentage or higher contractual rate decreases in second quarter 2016, as market conditions and competition necessitated agreeing to flat to slightly lower contractual that which became effective in third quarter 2016.

Werner reported average revenues per tractor per week increased by 1.6% in third quarter 2016 compared to second quarter 2016, due to a 0.2% decrease in average miles per truck combined with a 1.8% increase in average revenues per total mile. Average revenues per tractor per week fell 4.7% in third quarter 2016 compared to third quarter 2015, due to a 3.5% decrease in average miles per truck combined with a 1.2% decrease in average revenues per total mile.

Forward Air Earnings Land 22.4% Lower

Finally, Forward Air Corp. (NASDAQ:FWRD) reported a drop in earnings with a margin that is between that of Werner and Covenant, slipping 22.4% from a year earlier.

Net income totaled $11.9 million compared to $15.7 million in the third quarter of 2015. On a per-share basis it moved lower to 39 cents from 50 cents, missing a consensus estimate of analysts by 1 cent.

Revenue for the Tennessee-based fleet increased 1% to $249.6 million from $247.1 million for the same quarter in 2015. However, income from operations was $24.7 million, slightly lower than $24.6 million in the prior-year quarter.

“Our third quarter results were in line with our revised guidance and reflected the impact of a sluggish economic environment,” said Bruce A. Campbell, chairman, president, and CEO.

He said the company’s expedited less-than-truckload operation did a good job of managing costs and preserving margin despite soft volumes, which improved toward the end of the quarter.

“Expedited truckload services continued to grow its revenue, but it faced margin pressure due to loose truckload capacity,” Campbell said. “Our intermodal group delivered solid revenue and operating income in a very challenging import market, while our pool distribution segment posted a slight revenue gain as it ramped up its recent new business wins.”

Forward Air’s expedited LTL business saw declines of at or around 4.5% in both the weight and number of shipments during the quarter, yet total expedited LTL yield moved higher by 2.7%.

Its expedite truckload business saw revenue per mile fall 7.3% to $1.78 per mile, while total miles increased by nearly 20%. The company's pool distribution segment reported a 13.4% increase in revenue. However, it was hit with even larger increases, with costs for purchased transportation, salaries/wages and operating leases, with its income from operations falling 80% to just $100,000 for the quarter. Intermodal saw revenue fall 4.5%, as insurance and claims moved 14.5% higher, with the segment’s income from operations falling more than 14% to $3 million.

As for the current quarter, Michael J. Morris, senior vice president and chief financial officer, warned in light of the weak economic backdrop and the fact that the fourth quarter of 2016 has one less operating day than the prior year quarter, the company expects fourth quarter year-over-year revenue growth will be flat or down as much as 4%.

“We expect net income per diluted share for the fourth quarter of 2016 to be between 37 cents and 41 cents, compared to 75 cents in the prior-year quarter, which included a 15 cents [per share] tax benefit,” he said. “On an adjusted basis, we expect adjusted net income per diluted share to be between 53 cents and 57 cents, compared to 61 cents in the prior-year quarter.”

Marten Transport Holds On

In contrast, Marten Transport Ltd.(NASDAQ: MRTN) reported its net income of $8.4 million was unchanged from a year earlier while earnings per share increased 1 cent to 26 cents. The per share performance beat analysts’ expectation by 2 cents.

This came despite revenue falling slightly to $170.5 million from $171.3 million for the third quarter of 2015, despite substantially lower fuel surcharges due to decreased fuel prices in 2016. Revenue minus fuel surcharged, improved 1.2% to $155.8 million.

“The balanced strength of our multifaceted and diverse business model and the smart, disciplined work of our people drove increased results despite a continued soft freight market with excess capacity, which we expect to continue into 2017,” said Chairman and CEO Randolph L. Marten. “This quarter we achieved our sixth consecutive year-over-year increase in quarterly profitability within each of our dedicated, intermodal and brokerage segments.

He said the company grew its average number of truckload and dedicated tractors by 283 tractors, or 11.6%, in this year’s first nine months over the first nine months of 2015.

"We believe that we are well-positioned to capitalize on further profitable growth opportunities," Mr. Marten said.

Update adds Marten Transport earnings.