38

Warren Buffett may end up owning Amtrak

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Breaking news: In the next few years Amtrak may be privatized, ending up in the portfolio of companies owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. Ridiculous, you say? Yes, it is a bit far fetched, so you're going to need to read what I'm about to say slowly and carefully, not skipping over a single syllable. I now have it from two very reliable sources within the upper reaches of Amtrak that Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary BNSF Railway has been sending Amtrak monthly bills for maintenance of th...
8

North, south, east, west: Which way is best?

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
When traveling by train, I subscribe to the way of thinking that says hit me with the best part of the trip first, while I’m fresh. Later on I’ll be tired, distracted, absorbed in a book, or maybe even sound asleep. Plus, sometimes you see more going one way than the other, as I’m about to demonstrate. So here’s my compass guide to Amtrak (and VIA Rail Casnada) travel. California Zephyr. This is a no-brainer: Take Train 5 west. Leaving Denver after breakfast, be sure to ...
28

Bill Ackman's plan to transform Canadian Pacific

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
It has been a while since I’ve seen a movie any more entertaining than the show that New York investor Bill Ackman put on yesterday in Toronto. Ackman, founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, is in effect challenging the corporate elite of Canada on their own turf, in his bid to put a new slate of directors on the board of Canadian Pacific and expel chief executive Fred Green in favor of his candidate, retired Canadian National CEO Hunter Harrison. Uppity Yankees, beware: If you&rsq...
26

The melting market for eastern coal

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
A brisk market for export coal masks the fact that the demand for domestic use is as soft as melting butter.  There are two reasons. The one you hear about most often is Lisa Jackson. Ms. Jackson is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and under her leadership the EPA is moving on several fronts to severely limit pollutants that result from coal being burned to create electricity. Older, smaller plants that are uneconomic to equip with scrubbers will be a thing of the past ...
12

Nudge me if I fall asleep at the wheel

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Last October, I treated you to getting up with me at 1:30 a.m. until dawn (see “Train Watching Taken to Extremes”). The experience was interesting enough to merit repeating this week, when I spent the night in Emporia, Va., on the CSX North End Subdivision. The North End Sub is part of the A Line route from Philadelphia and Washington to Miami, and I had visions of seeing the northbound Silver Meteor and Auto Train as well as intermodal trains in both directions and whatever else was...
9

Left ear, right ear: Amtrak in stereo

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
It’s fun to watch two moving trains meet, particularly when it happens right where you’re standing. Outside the Northeast Corridor and commuter train zones, that’s not easy to pull off. But every so often I do, and today was one such occasion. For that I give all credit to technology. The scene is the 120-mile-long North End Subdivision of CSX, between Richmond, Va., and Rocky Mount, N.C. My technology consists of a radio receiver tuned to this subdivision, a laptop computer w...
15

For North Dakota's railroads, the bonanza grows and grows

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
An Associated Press story makes clear what I’ve been suspecting: With the Keystone XL pipeline perhaps five years or more from completion, about the only way North Dakota oil drillers will get their product to market is by train. The XL is the Canada-to-Gulf of Mexico pipeline that was to bring oil from Alberta’s tar sands to U.S. refiners, and along the way scoop up 100,000 barrels per day of North Dakota’s surging output. President Obama put the kibosh on that idea this month...
15

One man's long love affair with trains

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
In his time, Jim McClellan has been many things. At a young age, Jim worked in marketing for New York Central, where he occasionally suffered the acid tongue of its legendary president Al Perlman. After Penn Central’s creation, he left for government, where he helped midwife the birth of both Amtrak and later Conrail (this in an era when doing a stint of government work was considered an honor). Then at Norfolk Southern, where he was senior vice president for planning, McClellan was a pla...
31

The finest urban passenger station

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
It’s not in New York City or Chicago. Whatever grandeur they possessed was lost in the teardowns of half a century ago. Washington, D.C., is nice, but not a friendly place. Kansas City is a personal favorite for the memories it holds, but it’s woefully underused now and therefore barren. Seattle feels like a basement. Kudos to Baltimore Penn Station and Boston South Station for their blend of tradition and modernity. Los Angeles is a fine runner-up. But can’t we agree that Port...
15

Gloves come off in the fight for Canadian Pacific

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and the captains of industry who sit on the board of Canadian Pacific don’t play well together. Last Monday, after each side revealed the contents of emails they had exchanged in confidence, Ackman declared war, announcing he will wage a proxy fight in May to unseat an unspecified number of board members and compel the railroad to oust chief executive officer Fred Green in favor of his candidate, retired Canadian National CEO Hunter Harrison. By last weekend,...
17

Kansas is not flat

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
I grant that what you see of the Sunflower State from 35,000 feet looks flat, but don’t be fooled. And even in the dead of winter, when the wheat fields show only stubble, there is a subtle beauty to the rolling topography along what I grew up calling the Union Pacific's Kansas Division. In my time at the University of Kansas, I never rode or drove that way, but it seemed that every town from Junction City to Sharon Springs near the Colorado border sent one of its sons to my fraternity. ...
11

L'affaire des toilettes

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Have you noticed that we seem to have a lot of potty problems lately? Amtrak is about to replace a concrete slab that has served as its station in Beaumont, Texas, with a 1,800-square foot structure that contains neither a bathroom nor air-conditioning, reports the Beaumont Enterprise. (Advises the newspaper: If you gotta go, go out back.) From Amsterdam, my Dutch correspondents send word that train riders have rebelled against new short-distance trains whose coaches contain no toilets. The Dut...
9

The railroad to watch in 2012

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Hunter Harrison run another Class I railroad? This one Canadian Pacific, the main competitor to the railroad he retired from three years ago? It seems altogether possible as the new year begins, and there appears to be little that Fred Green, CP’s current chief executive, can do to stop it. Bloomberg News and Canada’s national newspaper, Globe & Mail, both reported that investor William Ackman’s Pershing Square Capital Management, which owns 14 percent of CP’s stock,...
33

Short lines and pure dumb luck: The next Powder River Basin (Part II)

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Ben Franklin said, “He that can have patience can have what he will.” More recently in Trains, Iowa Interstate chairman Henry Posner said that relying on pure dumb luck can be a workable business strategy, if you can wait it out. Two ways of saying the same thing and both true. Case in point: Short line conglomerate Watco thought it was acquiring mostly a farm-products railroad when it leased a Montana branch line from BNSF Railway a few years ago. What that little railroad became ...
29

The next Powder River Basin

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Oil expert and historian Daniel Yergin contends that the center of gravity of the petroleum world has undergone an amazing shift in recent years, away from the Middle East and toward (are you ready for this?) the Western Hemisphere. From offshore oil deposits it scarcely imagined having just a few years ago, Brazil expects to produce 6 million barrels of oil a day by 2020, more than half the output of Saudi Arabia. Canada’s Alberta oil sands disgorge 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, equal...
28

Canadian Pacific in the cross-hairs

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
In my former life, I put out an 800,000-circulation magazine about ordinary Janes and Joes and their money. And one person my writers focused on for great investment ideas was Bill Ackman, the 45-year-old investor who runs a $6.3 billion hedge fund called Pershing Square Capital Management. At investor conferences I attended, Ackman strode about the stage like a rock star. Individual investors paid $1,000 or more just to listen to Ackman. He had a track record of finding companies whose st...
10

Amtrak moves to save $100 million annually

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Updated 11/3/2011 When I wrote last Friday that a purge of Amtrak’s non-union workforce was “a no-brainer,” I guess I was prescient. Today letters began going into the mailboxes of all non-agreement employees, offering them buyouts. If Amtrak’s force-reduction goal isn’t met, the buyouts will be followed by dismissals in January on less-generous terms. Any non-union employee with more than one year of seniority is eligible to request a buyout. The package b...
34

When push comes to shove, what Amtrak will axe

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Joe Boardman, the president of Amtrak, penned a note to employees the other day that offers clues to what the company would do if Congress cuts its operating grant. He notes first that the best guess is that the Senate will appropriate $1.48 billion in operating and capital grants, which is far short of the $2.2 billion the company had sought. That amount included $600 million for operations, $1.3 billion for capital needs and $200 million for debt service.  A House committee has ...
12

Train watching taken to extremes

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
How do I begin this sorry tale? Maybe with a second question: Where would I be today without ATCS Monitor? I’d be flying blind, as I did most of my life, hoping to accidently come upon a train now and then. ATCS Monitor (go here for a fuller explanation) gives you a dispatcher’s view of a railroad and shows you where the trains are. So far, so good. But software like ATCS Monitor can also get me in trouble. I go to sleep at 9:30 p.m. in Stony Creek, Va., on the CSX North End Su...
33

Is BNSF clamping down on photographers?

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
I am sympathetic with the fix railroads are in. The feds are all over them to find saboteurs under every rock. I am also sympathetic with the dilemma facing people who love trains and love to photograph them. Your right to do this is as unfettered as ever, perhaps, but you just have to expect to be bothered — some would say harassed — as you go about your business. A recent episode alongside BNSF Railway, and my follow-up with the railroad, puts the issue in stark relief. Bu...
22

Staring death in the face

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Wednesday begins as just another day for Florida East Coast Railway engineer David Shelley. He and conductor Jim Bush leave Jacksonville, Fla., for Hialeah Yard near Miami at 1:30 p.m. with 9,160-foot train 101, pride of the fleet. On the point are two of FEC’s big SD70M-2s. In the hole they go at Micco, Fla., to meet northbound train 202, then down the coast at a steady 60 per, waving to onlookers in a rainstorm. By early evening 101 passes West Palm Beach, entering th...
6

Amtrak's next challenge: New rail competition

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak President Joe Boardman was in St. Louis today to deliver the good news: a record year in ridership for Amtrak; the eighth record year, in fact, out of the past nine. This is especially noteworthy in light of declining gasoline prices in recent months, a soft economy, and a mass of cancellations and extremely late arrivals this past summer for such important long-distance trains as the California Zephyr and Empire Builder. But I can’t help thinking that Amtrak’s upbea...
17

So are we going into a recession or not? Rails provide the answer

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
To hear the politicians in my adopted hometown of Washington talk, we need President Obama’s expensive jobs-creating legislation because the economy is possibly headed into the toilet (Democrats), or we cannot afford the legislation because the economy is possibly headed into the toilet (Republicans). That begs the question: What is going on with the economy? In another lifetime, I used to write about the economy and interview economists; boy, was that a dull life. (Did you hear abo...
14

Can you spend a day just sitting and waiting? Let’s try

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Yesterday was a killer. Up at 2:30 a.m. in Georgia and on the road until 6 p.m. that evening in Virginia. This is what you like to do: drive and watch trains. But it’s probably an instance of too much of a good thing. Just north of the North Carolina border in Virginia, you pass on U.S. Highway 301 a nook beside the CSX North End Subdivision tracks. You could sit at this curve all day and let the trains come to you. You know this, because your fellow train lovers have worn a path th...
7

The bulls wear you out

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Six months ago, you set out to witness an interesting event: a northbound CSX intermodal train, Q104, running through Georgia against a wall of superior southbound trains, three of them belonging to Amtrak. This was between Folkston and Savannah, and you called it The Running of the Bulls. It was a bit of a disappointment, largely because you got up too late. (To read that account, go here.) Today you get another opportunity to watch Q104 make headway, and take no chances, setting the ala...
11

How to go boots up in the passenger train business

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Jim Justice, you need to meet Randy Parten and Ed Ellis. Parten is the rich Texas oil man who, in the late 1980s, assembled 50 passenger cars for luxury trains to move vacationers from the Denver airport to the resort town of Aspen, Colo. Parten made one mistake fatal to his cause, however: He committed his capital and talked up his idea before getting the support of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway, which owned the tracks. No such support came through. So much for his Roaring ...
9

Amtrak's worst ride is coming to an end

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Almost five weeks ago, I wrote of the deplorable condition of the street leading to the front of Washington Union Station that makes cars rock up and down like rowboats in stormy seas (see “Worst Ride on Amtrak,” Aug. 6). I ended that missive with this plea to Amtrak’s president: “Mr. Boardman, fix your street.” As I drove my daughter to Union Station today, we got the usual rocking in the left lane, and I watched as the motorist beside us in the right ...
24

"Midnight in Paris" and golden ages of railroads

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
Movies have unexpected effects on me. Cathie drags me kicking and screaming to see Midnight in Paris, she saying it is a “romantic comedy where two people fall in love.” Okay, a chick flick. Not until the opening credits do I realize it’s a Woody Allen screenplay that he also directed. The plot: Gil (Owen Wilson), a young Hollywood screenwriter and would-be novelist and his fiancé and her parents are vacationing in Paris. The fiancé is a voluptuous but brainless s...
13

A monument to Union Pacific's birth

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’m just back to Cheyenne tonight from a visit I have come to enjoy: A trip to the Ames Monument. Most of you are probably asking, “What’s the Ames Monument?” Brothers Oakes and Oliver Ames were seminal figures in the early development of Union Pacific, whose 150th anniversary will be celebrated next year. I doubt that the Ames boys will figure high in UP’s justly deserved birthday celebration. But, oh, that monument.   First of all, forgive me fo...
6

New England railroads meet the enemy

Posted 7 years ago by Fred Frailey
The biggest foe of any small railroad is weather. Nothing a Hurricane Irene or a 100-year blizzard and snowmelt can do to a Class I property will matter much in the long term. It’s pennies per share on the bottom line. BNSF Railway proved this in 2011 by deftly rearranging train movements around flooding, then building a bridge over one of the floods. I call this open-checkbook railroading. But what if you are a small railroad, without Warren Buffett as your banker? New En...

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