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— by Tony Hatch
The 2014 edition of RailTrends® (Nov. 20-21 in New York City), was our 10th and it was, well, fantastic. It wasn't just the speaker lineup; the attendee list, too, was superb. In addition to suppliers and rail finance execs, the audience comprised two Class I railroad CEOs, a head of rail domestic intermodal, a major rail treasurer, a chief rail strategist or two, the incoming head of the ASLRRA, the RAC's CEO and shippers. I cannot recreate the networking discussions (you had to be there), but the content and dialogue surrounding same were terrific. Here's my "Top 10" list of takeaways:
1. Service should improve by spring. Railroads get it: They see the problems and, if they address them, the opportunities; I expect significant trend-line improvement by spring, assuming a "normal" winter. We heard from Matt Rose on BNSF's big money allocations ($6 billion capex in 2015), as well as strategists and operating heads at CN, CSX, NS and CP. They have plans to add capacity, purchase locomotives and bring on trained T&E employees. Overall, I expect Class I capex to be up about 5 percent in 2015.
2. The demand is there. We heard directly from one of the rails' and rail/intermodal's largest customers, United Parcel Service (via Ken Buenker), who stressed the need for regularity and certainty (UPS holds rails to a 95 percent standard, the rest to 99 percent), and that rails' current performance was "very concerning." But he acknowledged that they continue to invest, that UPS is "confident in rails' future" and "will continue to invest in their rail partnership." Shippers in the audience echoed that sentiment.
3. Consolidation may not be the answer, but it is the question. Every Class I but one (CP, of course) came out against it, including BNSF (heretofore officially silent), noting the terrible risk/reward outlook at present.
4. Keith Creel accepts the Progressive Railroading "Railroad Innovator Award." He talked about change during a career that has spanned the IC, CN and now CP, and noted that M&A was but one of the outside-of-the-box solutions to fluidity issues that ought to be considered by a tradition-bound industry. Creel was a well-deserved winner and looks to be well on his way to becoming a model modern rail leader.
5. And then there's Chicago. Neither Creel, who delivered a gracious acceptance speech, nor CP's Hunter Harrison, who was there only to support his protégé, took questions from the audience. But Harrison did tell me that CP, BNSF and others had created a Chicago policy study committee comprising retired rail operations all-stars (names I heard included Shoener, Trafton and Harris) who will report back in early 2015 with concrete answers to the service issues in the congested hub — 400 freight trains a day plus 500 passenger trains! It's something Harrison believes could be of real value and, if so, was the biggest piece of news to come out of RailTrends 2014.
6. Mexican demand is real. KCS's Pat Ottensmeyer delineated how foreign direct investment is leading to industrial buildout in not just autos but aerospace, white goods, etc., which will benefit rails disproportionately — KCS and UP, in particular.
7. Rail-car OEMs above-average build rates here to stay. While we wait till next year for the issuance of tank-car standards, pent-up demand is building up for other car types, which should keep production above 50,000 cars well into the 2020s, said FTR's Dick Kloster.
8. CBR to continue to grow through 2017 in North America. While still rather small (2 percent to 4 percent of the carload total) and incredibly volatile, crude oil is worth the hassles associated with moving it, railroads told us. PLG Consulting's Taylor Robinson sees a seven- to 10-year industrial buildout for rail due to "unconventional energy" and its effects on industry.
9. Washington still playing defense, but there's a ray of hope for the offense. If railroads show first-half 2015 improvement, there's a chance that rail interests in D.C. could go on the offensive next year and with the next Congress — for example, in terms of getting an STB reauthorization bill through the Senate Commerce Committee that they can live with, or getting through to lawmakers about the undue risk rails take on by moving dangerous goods.
10. How can we top this? We said that after RailTrends 2013, as well. As BNSF's Rose said about the rails, capacity and demand — it's a rich man's problem, but a problem, nonetheless. We'll get to work on the 2015 program soon.
Tony Hatch is an independent transportation analyst and consultant, and a program consultant for Progressive Railroading's RailTrends® conference. Email him at email@example.com