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The age of the train: myth or reality?

Tony Naylor, The Guardian
You shouldn’t be flying. I shouldn’t be flying. We all know that. Which would explain why, recently, the British media has enthusiastically bought into the idea of international train travel as a realistic and relaxing alternative.

All you need is a laptop, a credit card, The Man In Seat 61 and, a few days later, you too can be waking, refreshed, as your night-train pulls into Berlin; or enjoying splendid Alpine views as you make your way to Milan. Or so the Sunday supplement version goes.

To an extent, I’m on board with all this. Four years ago, I decided to limit the number of times I would fly each year to one transatlantic flight, or two within Europe. Admittedly, this was driven as much by fear as a desire to live greenly. At the time, I hated getting on the big metal death bird in the sky. The idea of the train as a far more authentic and civilised – not to mention non-lethal – mode of travel was seductive.

The reality, however, is more complex. You see more of the world, for sure, but that is a mixed blessing. I now know that the Hamburg-Copenhagen rail-ferry is a splendid way to travel between the two, but also that Belgian train stations are some of the bleakest in Europe. Similarly, whilst I smiled at one American’s startled reaction to Prague’s dated but perfectly adequate main station – “Oh my God,” she howled, “It’s like a third world country.” – sat, later, in a cramped, stuffy compartment, on a rackety old bit of rolling stock, I had to admit that this was no way to reach Munich in style…
(21 Oct 2009)

Buffett gambles £27bn on rail to get back on track

James Quinn, The Telegraph
Burlington is America’s largest railway by revenue, operating freight across large swathes of the west and mid-west. Its tracks are also used by a variety of passenger services.

Mr Buffett believes that Burlington will benefit as the US economy recovers.

The septuagenarian billionaire argues that railway operators cannot do well unless the businesses and consumers who use the products they transport are beginning to spend again. “It’s an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States,” said Mr Buffett. “I love these bets.”
In typical Buffett style, the cash-and-shares deal was struck in a 15-minute conversation with Matthew Rose, Burlington’s chief executive…
(3 Nov 2009)

Buffett’s Bet on Trains

Editors, New York Times
Updated, Nov. 4, 11:25 a.m. | Joining our discussion this morning are: T.J. Stiles, a biographer of Cornelius Vanderbilt; Jean Strouse, author of “Morgan, American Financier”; and Charles R. Morris, a former banker and the author of “The Sages: Warren Buffett, George Soros, Paul Volcker and the Maelstrom of Markets.”

Warren Buffett is betting big on railroads. He started buying Burlington Northern Santa Fe in 2006 and then made investments in Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern. On Tuesday, his company, Berkshire Hathaway, announced the purchase of the 77 percent of Burlington Northern it didn’t already own for about $44 billion (along with the assumption of $10 billion in debt). It is Berkshire’s largest acquisition.

It has been a long time since railroads were central to America’s booms, bubbles and busts. What does Mr. Buffett’s investment in trains say about prospects for the economy? How can his role be put in historical perspective?

Charles Geisst, professor of finance and author
Keith T. Poole, political science professor
Joyce Appleby, historian, author of “Relentless Revolution”
T.J. Stiles, author of “The First Tycoon”
Jean Strouse, author of “Morgan, American Financier”
Charles R. Morris, former banker, author of “The Sages”
Amar Bhidé, author of “The Venturesome Economy”
Scott Reynolds Nelson, professor of history…
(3 Nov 2009)

Is Warren Buffett’s Railway Buy a Billion Dollar Bet on Big Coal?

Brian Merchant, treehugger
The initial reaction to news that the Oracle from Omaha was investing billions of dollars in BNSF railway was positive–Mike noted that it could lead to a number of positive developments: potentially more passenger rail lines, a higher profile for railroad transportation in general, and further investment in other rail lines from other finance big guns. But there’s a downside to his purchase as well–the rail Buffett bought transports some 1/5th of America’s coal. Is Buffett’s investment therefore a bet that coal will need to be shipped into the foreseeable future?

That’s The New Republic’s Bradford Plumer’s take:

the BNSF railway serves a lot of coal fields in the West, including Wyoming’s vast Powder River Basin, and hauls enough coal on its routes to supply about 10 percent of the electricity in the United States. So Buffett’s essentially betting that coal’s going to remain a major part of the U.S. energy mix for quite some time, even as the country moves to cut carbon emissions.
Does that mean Buffett doesn’t think climate legislation would put a damper on one of the main economic drivers of his new railway? Essentially, yes–if and when the bill passes, it will come loaded with enough protections to ensure that coal will be around a while yet…
(3 Nov 2009)

It’s Time to Rebuild Our Passenger Railroad System

James Howard Kunstler, alternet
The following is from the foreword of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons (Chelsea Green, 2009).

The world economic fiasco, which I call “The Long Emergency,” may be speeding us into a future of permanent nostalgia in which anything that is not of the present time looks good.

I say this to avert any accusations that I am trafficking in sentimentality where the subject of railroads is concerned. For the moment, any suggestion that a railroad revival in America might be a good thing is generally greeted as laughable for reasons ranging from the incompetence of Amtrak, to the sprawling layout of our suburbs, to our immense investment in cars, trucks and highways — motoring culture now overshadowing all other aspects of our national identity.

This said, I will hazard to engage in a personal sentimental journey to the memory bank of my many adventures on trains, starting with the best: my yearly journey from New York City to summer camp in New Hampshire, which I repeated for several years beginning in 1959…
(4 Nov 2009)

India jumps on gold bandwagon but Warren Buffett rides the growth train

Carl Mortished, Times
India prefers gold; Warren Buffett chooses coal. The two commodities — one in glittering ascendancy, the other plumbing the depths — are almost metaphors for diverging views on America, the dollar and global economic recovery.

Asia’s big central banks have begun to swap their dollar reserves for lumps of useless yellow metal. Last month India bought 200 tonnes of gold from the International Monetary Fund, almost half of the 403 tonnes earmarked for sale by the IMF. The gold fraternity had expected most of it to be snapped up by the Central Bank of China.

Instead, India made its move, paying $6.7 billion (£4 billion) for the hoard and following the Chinese example. China has almost doubled its gold reserves in recent years to more than 1,000 tonnes. Slowly but surely, the emerging market giants are sterilising a small percentage of their dollar reserves in the world’s oldest store of value.

The Indian Finance Minister rejected any suggestion that the country had lost confidence in the US currency. Most of India’s $285 billion in reserves is held in US Treasury bills. He said that the operation was just a bit of foreign exchange asset management.

…None of this impresses Warren Buffett, who this week made the biggest bet of his career. Berkshire Hathaway, his investment company, agreed to pay $34 billion to take control of a railroad company.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) is classic Buffett — a low-tech nuts-and-bolts business, hauling heavy goods across the US West. This is the stuff of American legend: rail cars chugging across the prairies to the Big Rock Candy Mountain. The tycoon investor likes bread-and-butter businesses that make stuff and do useful things, companies such as Coca-Cola, Kraft and Geico, a motor insurer. He famously dismissed derivatives as weapons of mass destruction. This week he described BNSF as a two-pronged bet: America needs an efficient and well-maintained rail system, he said, while at the same time America must prosper if rail is to do well. It was an “all-in wager” on the future of the US, he added.
(5 Nov 2009)