Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Malcolm loves railways

He has reflected this previously, noting his trips in Britain, Spain, Italy and the USA. Doubtless we soon may be regaled with Eurostar and Belgian Railways.

So, he was cheered that Warren Buffett, the Sage of Omaha, was inducing his investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway, to put up $34 billion to take control of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation. Now, if we'd known that was on the cards, and we'd divied up the odd grand yesterday to buy shares, we'd have made twenty-odd cents in the dollar on the deal. Heck: that's business, my friend.

A hard head ...

The calculation is in the strategic importance of the BNSF. It is the second-largest rail conglomerate in the US. More to the point, it hauls all those lovely consumer goods from the West Coast ports (LA, Long Beach and Seattle) to the mid-west hubs (Chicago, St Louis and Kansas City). Heading back west, the trains are lugging grain and soya for the Chinese market. In that respect, Buffett is on a one-way bet that the US economy is on the up, and that China will continue to demand food imports..

A more intriguing thought is that Berkshire Hathaway has significant holdings in other rail operations: some ten million shares in Union Pacific and two million in Norfolk Southern. The one owns 27,000 miles and operates a further 6,000 miles, of track across 23 States; the other 21,000 miles across 22 states. Now, if only some bright spark would suggest that they combine operations to offer a decent passenger experience ...

... and a romantic heart?

Malcolm now recalls a night spent in Needles, on the Colorado River, where California is about to trip over into Arizona (and, not far out of your way, into Nevada). He was there because that was where Route 66 ran, and Malcolm (as has repeatedly been evidenced here) has read and re-read his Steinbeck, in this case chapter 12 of The Grapes of Wrath:
... out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks and that's the end of Arizona. There's California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it, Needles on the river.

Well, as Malcolm recalls it: the "pretty town" now exists as a staging post on the Interstate.

It has a choice of a handful of chain motels. So Malcolm was bedded in the Best Western Colorado River Inn.

For the purposes of this piece, its significance was the
"back-side" of the joint faced south, and the BNSF track. So the night was punctuated by the iconic moaning of freights heading east and west. Just one train would have been the Amtrak Southwest Chief, out of LA at 6:45 PM and through Needles (the station is a single unattended platform in a freight yard) in the early hours.

For the heart-throbbing romantic in Malcolm it was all rather disappointing, except for the ten miles or so of Route 66 between two ramps on and off Interstate 40.

So, in the hope of something better: here's a small cheer for Mr Warren Buffett and his investment.

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