William Vantuono

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.

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By Tony Kruglinski, Financial Editor

anthony-kruglinski-web.jpgI would like to use this month’s Financial Edge to comment on the standards of honesty and ethical behavior that we have come to expect in our industry as well as to say goodbye to GATX’s Jeff Riley (pictured, below), who retired at the beginning of August. Jeff was the ultimate practitioner of what could be model professional standards for anyone in our business. I would like to use Jeff’s professional life as a bit of a primer for anyone new to our industry and seeking to succeed.

Honesty and ethical behavior: When Jeff Riley and I were in this business (buying, selling, leasing, and financing rolling stock) in the 1980s, there were a lot of people running around trying to put together deals for what was then a market of significantly surplus rail equipment. The problem was that many of those seeking to broker transactions were dishonest about having an agreement with the owner to represent the equipment. It was like the Wild West! If they could secure employment for unemployed cars or locomotives, they could go to the owner or and pitch the deal. Unfortunately, they came to the owner purporting to represent the end-user. No one knew who was legitimately representing who or what! This caused a huge amount of wasted time and effort on everyone’s part when deals that should have come together crashed and burned!

Eventually, the market for rolling stock picked up and the marketplace identified many of these “operators” for what they were and either tossed them or legitimized them by putting them back on corporate payrolls where somebody could exercise some ethical control over them.

jeff-riley-2009.jpgJeff Riley never had these issues. In the nearly 30 years that we have worked together, he has never misrepresented a situation. Even beyond that, he has never even allowed me to misconstrue a situation without setting me immediately straight. Because of this honesty and ethical behavior, my partners and I have come first to Jeff and GATX with many transactions, knowing that we could get a quick and honest reaction from Jeff as to GATX’s interest in the deal. As a result, my firm, Railroad Financial Corp., has closed more transactions with GATX as a counter-party than any other single entity.

Ability to deliver the institution: When you are representing a mix of people seeking to buy, sell, lease or finance equipment, some of them are well known to you and some are new relationships. Where our engagement is with a new customer, there is a premium on our ability to quickly understand what the client is willing to do and is not willing to do as we interact with the market for their benefit.
This, in turn, puts a premium on our finding the right counter-party. Our client is counting on us not to waste its time with dead-ends or unsuccessful market initiatives and overtures.

Using Jeff and GATX as an example, I can remember no situation in all of the years during which I interacted with Jeff Riley when he was not almost immediately spot-on with his appraisal of GATX’s likely interest in participating in a transaction. There were two reasons for this: First, Jeff had been with GATX long enough and was bright enough to have learned what his company was interested in doing. And make no mistake about this, sometimes this changes from month to month in our industry. The other side of this coin was GATX’s confidence in Jeff. He earned the respect of not only GATX’s management, but the company’s credit apparatus as well. Jeff could reliably deliver GATX to the closing table when he said he could. There is a huge premium in our industry for anyone who can do that!

Being a nice guy (or gal): Over the years, I have had to deal with a lot of people who are not nice guys or gals simply because they were stitched into a big deal or important funding needed by a client. However, I (and everyone else I know in this industry) would rather deal with someone with a reasonable temperament. Fortunately for me and my partners, most highly talented people with whom we deal in this industry are also really nice people. The blood-sucking, win-at-all-costs, bait-and-switch types are usually well known and we deal with them only when we absolutely have to. Want to know who they are? Follow the trail of busted deals and you will find them in the debris.

Jeff Riley? He is one of the nicest people on the planet and because of this, one of the most successful in his job as GATX’s Executive Director Structured Finance. He was always ready with a smile, a helping hand, or a joke when tension was about to wreck a deal. He was, in fact, quiet confidence incarnate. When you heard his voice on the line, you wanted to talk to him, no matter what the situation. Jeff, we are most definitely going to miss you!

(Thanks also to Jeff’s wife of 33 years, Jodi, for her support of a guy on whom we all came to count.)

By Richard F. Timmons
President, American Short Line
and Regional Railroad Association

richard-timmons-web.jpgQuestion: How many man-hours  are hired when a short line railroad spends $1 million on upgrading typical short line track?
Answer: 20,800.

Q: How many man-hours are hired when a short line railroad spends the $2 million in company money required to match the $1 million tax credit?
A: 62,400.

Q: What percentage of the ties and rail required to upgrade short line railroad track are purchased from American manufacturers?
A: 100%.

Q: If the short line tax credit extension passed today, when could short line railroads begin hiring those man-hours and purchasing those materials to undertake new projects?
A: Tomorrow.

Q: Why hasn’t Congress extended the short line tax credit as part of its effort to stimulate the economy and create jobs?
A: Good question.

Time is running out for the short line rehabilitation tax credit (45G) which expires on Dec. 31, 2009.  At a time when the federal government is focused almost entirely on stimulating the economy through immediate job creation, extending the short line tax credit should be on everyone’s “to do” list.

I am encouraged that, as of this writing, 167 House representatives and 39 Senators have co-sponsored the extension legislation. That number grows every week. These are among the highest co-sponsor numbers of any bill being considered in this session of Congress.

Even more significant, the co-sponsors are divided almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, representing the kind of bipartisanship that everyone says is so necessary to get things done in Washington.

While this support is gratifying, it will not mean much if Congress does not enact the extension by the end of the year.

Q: Who are the primary beneficiaries of short line railroad track rehabilitation?
A: Railroad shippers.

When their short lines upgrade track, shippers receive faster, safer, and more competitively priced service. Most important, they can utilize the newer heavier-load railroad cars that are becoming the standard for the Class I industry and that require a much stronger track structure than exists on many short lines today. Absent that ability to handle the new equipment, shippers are cut off from the main line rail network.

As Watco Cos. Inc. CEO Rick Webb recently testified before the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, “For small businesses and farmers, the short line’s ability to take a 25-car train 75 miles to the nearest Class I interchange is just as important as the Class I’s ability to attach that block of traffic to a 100-car train moving across the country. My Kansas grain customers cannot make the journey to export markets in the Gulf without Class I railroad service. But they can’t start the journey without short line service.”

Q: When is an investment in railroad track good for the highway?
A: Always.

Improving short line railroad service takes heavy trucks off the highway, and that reduces highway congestion and pavement damage. A single railcar can hold three to four truckloads.
Taken together, the short line industry diverts over 33 million truckloads from the nation’s highways and in so doing saves approximately $1.4 billion in pavement damage. Much of this savings is in rural areas where so many short lines operate and where state and local government is hard-pressed to come up with road repair money for local roads.

Question: If Congress extends the short line tax credit, will railroads put up a green sign beside track being rehabilitated that says “Project Funded by the 45G Rehabilitation Tax Credit?”
Answer: Yes!

Monday, 16 November 2009 10:25

Financial Edge: Inspect it, or regret it

By Anthony Kruglinski

anthony-kruglinski-web.jpgI had a conversation last month with Pat Mazzanti, president of Railroad Appraisal Associates (formerly Norman Seip & Associates), the oldest rail equipment appraisal organization in North America. I had called to check up on the amount of work his firm might or might not be doing on new equipment deals in this down market.

Pat confirmed that there is (compared to prior years) a dearth of significant numbers of new equipment deals that would otherwise require his services. He is doing some portfolio analysis as well as lease/buy analysis for several clients. He is also doing appraisal work for several new equipment financings and used equipment transactions, but not in the numbers seen in previous years.

Pat made a point of remarking that many equipment owners, lessees, and secured parties are not taking advantage of this “down time” in the equipment market to take preventative actions that are possible today. Asked what he meant by “preventative actions,” he provided the following summary:

• Shopping Equipment For Needed Mechanical Work. According to Pat, some car owners are recovering equipment from lessees and putting the cars and locomotives directly into storage. While avoiding potential expenses associated with repairs might make sense to a cash-strapped lessor, that lessor is taking a risk that its equipment will not be ready to return to service when the market turns. Pat’s point: Private shops are looking for work today, and getting needed mechanical work today might result in a lower cost than may be possible during a market upturn.

• Inspections At End-Of-Lease. There are many reasons to inspect rolling stock at lease end: 1) Net lessees that have been responsible for maintaining rolling stock may not have been doing so according to the mechanical requirements of the lease. 2) Excessive wear and tear on the equipment that might result in a lessor claim against the lessee may depend on identifying defects at the return. Even if there are no claims to be made, the wear and tear may be such that the lessor needs to shop the equipment to assure it is ready for similar or different services when the market rebounds.

• Identifying Impaired Assets. Pat points out that a significant number of railcars and locomotives may never return to service.
What does he mean? Pat has been hired to give his opinion on the short- and long-term viability of certain equipment types, given the current economic situation and likely future market highs and lows. For instance, the cost of rehabilitating certain locomotives or cars might be prohibitive given the likely market for this equipment in the future. Put another way, they may be “functionally obsolete.”

For instance, a worn-out SD40-2 may be worth more as scrap and recoverable parts than the cost of rebuilding it for any service that is likely in the next five years. Similarly, while some presently parked 20-year-old centerbeam flatcars will go back into service, it is not likely that all will do so. Pat’s customers have been briefed on their options and are therefore able to make decisions on scrapping equipment when scrap prices hit attractive levels. They are also aware of what they have to do relative to alternative uses for cars that are not “beloved” by the market today.

What other factors are coming into play as equipment owners strive to cope? Storage fees. According to Pat, owners of equipment out of service are having to face escalating costs for storing their cars and locomotives. For instance, two years ago the costs of storing a car was between $1 and $2 per day per car. Today, those costs are hitting $5-plus. If the current trend continues, it will force older cars (1970s built) that in past markets would have seen a second life to be scrapped during this cycle.

Asked for an example, Pat pointed to late-1970s-built C113 grain cars. In prior cycles, these cars would have been stored and reemployed when the market rebounded. If the present market downturn continues much longer, Pat feels, the increased storage costs for railcars may force the premature scrapping of an otherwise useful asset.

We asked Pat what else kept him awake at night. Here are two of his most pressing concerns:

• Potential Market Irrationality. Up to this point in time, the market has acted rationally with no significant “fire sales” of railcars and locomotives, despite the financial conditions of many owners. What happens if these owners find themselves, all at once, under the gun to sell?

• Manufacturing Capacity. Pat hopes that North American railcar manufacturers will ramp-up capacity less aggressively than in prior market rebounds. The alternative to this is the potential for further market dislocations in the future.

If our readers would like to challenge Pat Mazzanti on any of his views expressed herein or, even better, hire him to put them in the know relative to their equipment and its role in today’s and future markets. You can reach Pat at pat@railroadappraisals.com.

By Scott T. Matheson, CFA, CPA
Senior Director, Investment Research,
CAPTRUST Financial Advisors 

matheson.jpgOn Nov. 3, Warren Buffett announced his company’s intention to acquire BNSF. He commented on CNBC that “[the acquisition is] an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States.” Based on BNSF’s ties to the economy, we agree that Buffett’s decision is predicated on faith in eventual economic recovery.

The BNSF story is indicative of the railroad industry in general. As market analysts, CAPTRUST pays close attention to railroad trends, as freight data and company earnings reports/outlooks can provide tangible assessments of economic trends, particularly consumer demand. The preliminary Gross Domestic Product (GDP) release within the U.S. for the quarter ended Sept. 30 indicated that consumption continues to account for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic output, making consumers a key variable in economic growth—and an important gauge for the railroad industry’s health.

Here are few of the variables we think are critical to gauge the U.S. consumer’s health. In aggregate, we are seeing some modest improvements in each factor:

Unemployment: September’s unemployment rate stood at 10.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This figure is expected to rise is coming months and we are looking for stability in the latter part of 2010.

Credit availability: The U.S. consumer has relied on easy credit to facilitate spending over the past three decades. In spite of the substantial aid provided to financial institutions from the federal government, banks are not eager to extend loans to the average consumer, but we are seeing some pickup in available credit.

Housing: Home prices, as measured by the Case Schiller 20 City Composite, are down 32% since July 2006. While the U.S. has experienced several recent month-over-month increases in prices, we foresee a gradual recovery and stabilization within residential real estate.

The U.S. dollar: From early March 2009 to early November 2009, the U.S. dollar declined more than 15% vs. a trade-weighted basket of global currencies. The direction of the U.S. dollar is important to watch as it is not only impacts the volume of goods U.S. consumers import, but also as it impacts the volume of exports when U.S. goods look cheap to overseas buyers. Both these factors affect rail traffic.

Preliminary third-quarter U.S. GDP exhibited some economic growth that may mark the recession’s end, a positive for the economically-sensitive railroad industry. However, given the established importance of the consumer and considering the challenges outlined above, while we believe the U.S. is on the road to recovery, we expect it to be a slow and bumpy ride.
Rail operators should continue to monitor the challenges facing the U.S. consumer as they seek to assess the health of the U.S. economy in an ultimate effort to understand the impact to their bu.s.inesses, but we do see the glass as half full and are encouraged by increased U.S. export demand.

Scott Matheson oversees the investment research of CAPTRUST Financial Advisors, a 20-year-old independent investment research and retirement plan advisory firm that is headquartered in Raleigh, N.C.

 

By Keith Hartwell

 

images.jpgA friend of mine, a camp counselor as a teenager, often recounts an early learning experience. He was in charge of 10 eight-year-old boys. His primary disciplinary phrase was “if you do that one more time . . .” The phrase had no conclusion and never a real consequence. Two days into the camp session, the threat was repeated when the boys were violating a no-talking rule during a mandatory afternoon rest hour. Immediately one of his more precocious and perceptive wards popped up from his bunk and said, “Talk, talk, talk. When are we are going to get some action around here?”

2010 is going to be a year of action in Washington, D.C., and for the short line railroad industry it will be both eventful and challenging.

The short line rehabilitation tax credit (45G) expired at the end of 2009 and must be extended retroactively in 2010. The short lines have done their usual stellar job in setting up the legislation. To date we have secured more than 50% of the House (247) and the Senate (52) as co-sponsors. We are particularly proud that the sponsorship is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. In today’s Washington, that is rare.

The extension passed the House in late 2009 but was pushed aside by the health care debate in the Senate. The longer Congress waits to act, the more difficult it is for short lines to do the planning and make the material purchases associated with the certainty of the tax credit’s availability. If Congress holds up passage to the end of this year, even if it makes it retroactive to Jan. 1, 2010, it will have lost a real opportunity to maximize the job creating potential of the credit. The time to act is now.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller spent the better part of 2009 trying to hammer out compromise legislation on the issues surrounding railroad regulation. His legislation was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in late December and now awaits action by the full Senate and, subsequently, by the House. This isn’t what the industry ever would have sought and the short lines, along with the Class I’s, have worked with the Senator to minimize the harm to our franchises.

In fairness, Sen. Rockefeller and his staff have devoted substantial time and effort to address our concerns, and the legislation does incorporate numerous changes advanced by the railroad industry. We are continuing those efforts as the legislation proceeds. Unlike past years, Congress likely will act on a final bill this year.

In 2009, Congress passed a new rail safety bill, and in 2010 the Federal Railroad Administration is implementing hundreds of requirements contained in that new law. The vast majority of these requirements will add significantly to our cost of doing business—in Washington lingo, unfunded federal mandates.

PTC, Hours of Service, enhanced bridge inspections, and dozens of other regulatory decisions will be made in 2010. The short line industry’s goal is to reduce the burden through the regulatory process and to convince Congress to provide a fair level of government funding for what remains.

SAFETEA-LU, which authorized federal surface transportation spending and established most modal transportation policy, expired in 2009. Reauthorization was discussed, but no action was taken, so the status quo was extended. The legislation is largely a highway and transit funding bill, but two items affect the railroad industry: truck size and weight limits, and funding for highway grade crossings. Many in the trucking industry seek to increase size and weights, and some congressmen seek to tear down the wall that prohibits state DOTs from using grade crossing funds for general highway repairs. Fighting both efforts will be a high priority for the short lines in 2010.

The SAFETEA-LU bill is traditionally a six-year bill funded primarily through the gas tax. Most observers believe that adequate surface transportation funding requires an increase in the gas tax, so passing this bill before the 2010 election be difficult.

Keith Hartwell is President of Chambers, Conlon &Hartwell, is Managing Member of the Board of CC&H subsidiary firm Seneca Group, and the firm’s lead lobbyist for the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

 

By Anthony D. Kruglinski

 

anthony-kruglinski-web.jpgOur regular readers know that in addition to being a Contributing Editor at Railway Age, I am the President of Railroad Financial Corp., a financial advisor that works only in the rail industry. Several weeks ago, Railroad Financial Corp. celebrated its 21st birthday, and I had the opportunity to explain to a new acquaintance what my company does.

 

I explained that during the first five years of RFC’s existence, the majority of our financial dealings involved buying and selling and financing and refinancing older railcars and locomotives. The late 1980s and the early- to mid-1990s were mostly taken up with extending the lives of existing rail equipment. (There were certainly new cars and locomotives built and financed, but most of RFC’s customers at the time were shortlines and regional railroads, not Class I railroads.)

 

The mid-1990s through 2007 or so saw more new rolling stock being built and fewer cars and locomotives rebuilt or remanufactured. At the time, we reported in Railway Age that end-users of railcars and locomotives were voting with their checkbooks in favor of new modern equipment rather than to continue to plow more money into older equipment.

 

What’s happened recently? While RFC is still financing new cars, the vast bulk of our activity—well in excess of $1 billion in equipment last year—involved restructuring existing leasing agreements to attempt to wring more efficiency from existing transactions.

 

Sometimes we find ourselves working for a bankrupt entity seeking to restructure its operating lease fleet. Other times we work for financially healthy lessees who are seeking to lower their rental costs by trading term (longer) for rate (lower).

 

The point is that during the past 21 years we have gone from extending the lives of various types of railcars and locomotives, to building almost exclusively new equipment to, today, very little building any equipment of any kind.

 

We are all, more or less, sitting around waiting for developments:

• New cars are being built, but in numbers that are 25% or 30% of the numbers built only a few years ago.

• Locomotive OEMs are not inking any sizeable North American new locomotive orders. (Why would they when there may be as many as 10,000 locomotives in storage?)

• Depending on how you do your count (do you count cars awaiting the scrapper?), there may be as many as 500,000 cars stored in North America.

• Several large lessors reportedly are interested in selling some or all of their railcar and locomotive fleets, but not at material discounts. The cars they do want to sell are off lease; no one wants them.

 

Almost nothing is happening, except that RFC is making a reasonably good living restructuring and reformatting existing transactions involving railcars and locomotives to save lessees money.

 

Those of you who wait for this column’s annual predictions saw they did not come in December, January, or February. For now, I think that the big prediction for 2010 is for more of the same. That’s the first time that I have ever predicted that! But I can’t leave 2010 alone without some prognosticating, so here we go:

 

Operating lessor sales: I predict that there will be significant sales of operating leasing fleets during 2010. Nothing much has happened since the last fleet sale at the end of 2008, but I believe that several new investors are interested in making a foray into the acquisition of operating leased rail equipment. The situation just needs a bit of a push. What could that be? Foreclosure by lenders who have the opportunity to do so, due to payment or other defaults. The need for cash that’s required by one or more large diversified financial entities that would cause them to sale rail equipment at a modest discount. A decision by private equity investors to finally make investments they have been contemplating for several years.

 

Scrapping equipment: The next time there is an upward blip for the price of scrap steel, look for tens of thousands of railcars and locomotives to be scrapped. Owners of these items must face that many of these units will never go back into service. Surprisingly, the cost of storage is now also becoming an issue.

 

Planning for EPA Tier 4 locomotives: While the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier 4 locomotive emissions regulations and 2015 are still a ways off, locomotive manufacturers and high-horsepower end-users have to think about compliance. Here are some of the questions that the railroads are asking:

• What should I do with my existing high-horsepower locomotives? Should I invest in rebuilding some or all of them now or should I cut my losses and start scrapping them as soon as possible?

• EMD and GE are apparently fielding two different solutions for Tier 4. The GE product reportedly uses an aftermarket scrubber using urea. The EMD unit appears to continue to use the existing technology adapted for Tier 4. Planning needs to get started, but what planning?

 

That’s the best I can do this year!

By Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor

 

doug-bowen.jpgDallas gets it. It’s expanding its existing light rail transit network, augmenting regional rail, and bolstering existing Amtrak service, even as it faces the bumpy realities of advancing high speed rail. Texas’ second-largest city has a real-world, practical hold on matters mixed with a vision of what can be. Combine those elements with the ubiquitous optimism and “can-do” attitude all Texans seem to carry, and you have a potent force much of the U.S. would do well to emulate.

 

And please forget “right” or “left”; in this case; Dallas is front and center, in some ways perhaps the ambitious edge of the current U.S. passenger rail renaissance.

 

My latest trip to Dallas in late January only reaffirmed this, even as I delighted over the passenger rail progress the city has notched. More than many places, Dallas residents and officials, be it DART President Gary Thomas or a taxicab driver, mix that powerful Texas pride with a practical “what’s up in your town” inquiry. Where other cities pump up boosterism to an extreme, Dallas (I’ve found) seeks real information. “We’ve got this problem; do you? How are you guys dealing with it?” reflects an honesty, an open-mindedness, that bodes well both for urban rail transit and any future HSR development.

 

DART President Thomas and his staff are justly proud of the agency, and it shows. But more than they might know or sense, DART is a pointed refutation of the naysayers insisting passenger rail transit will not work and does not affect development, that it’s meant for only us “rat-grey New Yorkers” (in author Tom Wolfe’s words) who don’t know any better. It’s bolstered and energized Dallas’ downtown, a downtown long ignored per many U.S. “cities” but reasserting itself as a real place with a real purpose.

 

I base that not just on the gracious guided tour of new construction provided me by DART Director, Media Relations Morgan Lyons—a task he performed with relish and with obvious pride—but on my own multiple trips on DART’s Red and Blue lines. I saw “those people” (commuters) but also saw students, shoppers, and travelers with other purposes, generating on-off traffic for many stations along the routes.

 

One of those stops is at Union Station and the Reunion Center complex, served by DART, Trinity Rail Express (TRE) regional rail service linking Dallas with Fort Worth, and Amtrak. In the 1980s, a refurbished Union Station stood more as a monument to the past—almost a mausoleum—with few passengers coming or going. Not anymore; it may not yet be 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, but rail passengers now are in evidence throughout much of the day. A  modest four Amtrak trains per day don’t do Dallas justice. But it’s  more than six trains a week and, along with TRE’s presence and DART service, the station is set to welcome whatever HSR (or even just HrSR) might lie ahead.

 

That last component won’t arrive immediately. Advocates gathering at the historic Magnolia Hotel for the 6th Annual Southwestern Rail Conference, “Turning Vision into Reality” Jan. 29, were clearly  disappointed when FRA Deputy Administrator Karen Rae, the luncheon speaker, affirmed what the group already had heard the day before: Texas wouldn’t get the big bucks for any HSR project, at least in the first round. Rae delivered the “bad” news as diplomatically as she could, saying, “Should you be disappointed and concerned? You should be focused” on proceeding with HSR cohesively.

 

Indeed, even before Rae addressed the group, Texas DOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz allowed that the state needed a “comprehensive” approach to HSR, noting Texas submissions to FRA during 2009 were “fractured” into nine distinct projects or pieces. But Saenz remained upbeat, noting TexDOT now has a Rail Division to guide the state “in focusing on a comprehensive [statewide] rail plan.” The words and labels matter, Saenz said: “Not too long ago, we all were ‘the highway department.’”

 

Beyond accepting reality, and vowing (in Saenz’s words) that “we learned from what we did” and perhaps didn’t do, Texas HSR advocates also showed their magnanimous side to the FRA “winners.” Those assembled bore no demonstrative grudge in congratulating California, Florida, and Chicago-St. Louis for their first-round fiscal victories. Many took time to  congratulate conference moderator Fritz Plous, a Chicago resident and longtime rail advocate, for Chicago’s successful HrSR bid,  something perhaps Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) could learn to emulate rather than acting as a sore winner. In Dallas, they get it.  Here’s hoping they get the real thing, HSR, real soon.

By Richard F. Timmons
President, American Short line
and Regional Railroad Association

In the midst of unprecedented and historic regulatory changes demanding our attention and resources during the past year, short line railroads had the safest year in our history!

richard-timmons-web.jpgIn the past 18 months, challenging new laws and regulations have swept across our industry, demanding investments, time, and new procurement, as well as customer and union acceptance. These changes will be felt during the next decade as we strive to comply with numerous phased-in requirements intended to enhance railroad safety across the industry. While many of these initiatives have merit, the difficulty is how to pay for them. These unfunded mandates will prove to be a significant burden in the years ahead, one that must not intrude on our daily safety focus.

These ongoing requirements notwithstanding, the questions of why and how our segment of the railroad industry has achieved this significant safety milestone are worthy of consideration. The continuous rail industry focus on every aspect of safety is the backbone of the dramatic downward trend for all railroads in terms of injuries and fatalities. This safety conscious orientation began about 20 years ago and has proven its value through years of steady improvements.

And while no fatality or injury is ever acceptable, the reduction in both categories over the years is commendable and demonstrates the wisdom of the determined approach that railroads, large and small, have applied to safety. This focus and determination to reduce accidents, injuries, and fatalities started at the senior levels of management and has ultimately been embraced by every functional level in the railroad industry. The perseverance of rail leadership to protect employees, the public, and rail resources, and the improved metrics-based approach used to understand weakness in our systems, receives the bulk of the credit for the dramatic safety changes in the railroad industry.

For 2009, Class II and III railroads logged a total of 26,160,055 employee hours over 52,000 miles of railroad. Operating on that system, 563 short lines experienced 1 fatality and 441 injuries. This is a 7% reduction in fatalities and a 25% reduction in injuries from 2008 with just 17% fewer hours operated. This is a record for the short line industry and a tribute to the competence of those railroaders at every level that are responsible for such impressive results.

But this has been a challenging path we have traveled over a number of years. I believe there are many contributing factors that have made this record possible. As mentioned earlier, the consistent safety focus and the measurements developed to assess progress have made clear to management and employees where we stood and what demanded our attention and resources year over year.

The obvious shortcomings described by an annual analysis prompted numerous training initiatives from both internal short line resources as well as partnerships with the Class I community and TTCI. In addition, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association sponsored programs and classes, and in partnership with the FRA hosted a variety of training events over the years that were necessary for compliance. Additionally, ASLRRA provided templates, documents, procedures, programs, and on-site safety assessments to assist small railroads in continuously working to improve their safety posture.

Possibly the most effective safety initiative was the establishment of the ASLRRA Safety and Training Committee. This body of short line railroad members has been instrumental in creating products, programs, and safety policies that contributed significantly to the improved safety performance of small railroads. Their individual and collective contributions have been invaluable.

The difficult and challenging work of this committee coupled with its involvement with the ASLRRA Safety Awards recognition program each year has served to highlight individual and short line railroad company performance, and rewarded those members and companies whose efforts have paid off with improved annual results.

At the end of the day, these exceptional outcomes boil down to people. Railroaders are responsible for these results, and their professionalism, training, awareness, and dedication to doing their jobs correctly every day under all conditions make for safe operations. The results are evident. We will continue to strive to achieve these high standards in the coming months and years. There is no alternative for railroaders and their companies because safety our the first priority. 

By Anthony Kruglinski


anthony-kruglinski-web.jpgRailroad Financial Corp. (my firm) recently wrapped up its 24th Annual Rail Equipment Finance Conference in Palm Springs, Calif. This year nearly 250 people attended (two dozen more than last year). They were railroaders, manufacturers and suppliers, shippers, lessors, investment bankers, bankers, and just about every variety of individual interested in rail equipment. Despite the fact that we hold the Conference at a golf resort, every business session was packed with people trying to glean some sense of where the market for railcars and locomotives is headed.

For instance, they learned that while 2009-2010 had seen nearly a third of the railcars in North America parked out of service, those totals were coming down—for some car types, briskly. They learned that some locomotive lessors were prepping elements of their parked fleets for service in the third and fourth quarter of 2010. They learned that declines in rail traffic and rail employment seemed to have bottomed out and reversed themselves. Most important, they packed the evening social functions seeking to network themselves into whatever business activity was threatening to poke its head above the top of the trenches in which we all have been living for two years or so.

Put another way, there are a lot of people seeking to jump on this recovery if, in fact, the leased-car market is in a recovery. Is it? Good question.

If you take a look at railcar rental rates, you will still see amazing deals in the marketplace. While rental rates may be firming, we are still getting reports of lessors agreeing to current depressed market rents for terms of up to five years! This is occurring when logic suggests that if the market is turning they should be keeping their terms short so as to be able to take advantage of any surge in rental rates. What’s behind this willingness to commit to cheap rents for so many years? Fear—abject fear that cars currently on lease will be returned and be parked in the weeds. That does not spell recovery.

But other lessors smell recovery and are willing to risk cars coming back rather than be manipulated into locking in today’s low rates for years to come.

What’s likely to happen? The lessors willing to fall on their swords will do so and that element of the market (which we believe to be limited) will be sucked up into certain deals, leaving the rest of the market to take advantage of the old adage, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

As rail traffic picks up, as it seems to be doing, not only will it require cars that are currently in storage to be put back into service, it will have an effect of some kind on the velocity at which rail traffic has been moving during this business downturn. Clearly, no one wants to return to the bad old days of gridlock in certain rail corridors, but just as velocity increased when traffic went down, there should be a reduction in velocity when traffic rebounds. That will cause more cars and locomotives to be reactivated to service.

Let’s talk about locomotives. Scuttlebutt suggests that during the business downturn, the Class I’s may have stored locomotives taken out of service for mechanical reasons rather than repair them (which suggests that if you are a locomotive lessor who has a requirements in your leases that your leased locomotives remain in running condition, it’s time for some inspections). In any case, it may be more efficient for one or more of these Class I’s to tap the pool of thousands of leasable high horsepower locomotives, which may be already parked on their property by lessors, rather than sink cash from tight capital budgets into fixing their own broken units.

While we are on locomotives, I should note that both GE and EMD spent significant amounts of time reporting to the Rail Equipment Finance attendees on their efforts to prepare for the next tier of EPA rules and regulations due in 2015. Make no mistake about it: Class I’s are watching this situation to learn what their 2015 locomotive options are likely to be, especially if significant mechanical adaptations will need to be put in place to comply with the 2010 rules.

Whatever the OEMs develop for 2015, it will have an impact on what the Class I’s do with their existing fleets. Do they invest money in repowering existing locomotives? Do they rebuild existing units in kind for service beyond 2015 to take advantage of presumed grandfathering for existing units or do they scrap everything they can and buy new, when they understand what “new” is likely be and to cost?

Of course, what the Class I’s do with their fleets will impact the future for the thousands of leased locomotives that remain on the books of operating lessors!

What is this writer’s advice at this point in time?

• If you are a lessee: Jump into this market now and get the best lease terms possible for as long as possible.

• If you are a lessor: Hang tough. Better days are around the corner and perhaps only months away.

Everyone else should stay tuned to this space!




By Jerry Vest

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Almost 20 years ago, federal surface transportation policy changed for the better. Enactment of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) meant the days of Congress simply passing a “highway bill” were over. Since then, Congress has expanded the multimodal focus of surface transportation public policy. An integrated approach allows for better policy decisions through the reauthorization process, with each mode recognized for its own strengths and role in ground transportation.

With the most recent surface transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, up for renewal, discussions include the national limits on truck sizes and weights. This issue could have a dramatic and possibly unintended impact on the future health of ground transportation in the U.S. A handful of trucking companies and freight shippers are seeking to include in reauthorization higher federal highway truck weight and size limits. Their arguments are simply not good public policy.

First, proponents of heavier and larger trucks suggest that by allowing such trucks, fewer trucks will be on the roadways, producing less highway congestion, less pollution, and fewer accidents. These claims are not based on the properties of bigger trucks themselves, but on the idea that fewer total trucks will be required to move freight.

But as demonstrated by diversion studies done in 2007 by Carl Martland of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in 2009 by TTX Co., a tremendous diversion of freight from rail to truck would occur with increased federal weight and size limits. According to the Martland study, allowing a 97,000-pound national weight limit would divert 44% of all merchandise traffic handled by short line and regional railroads to trucks. The TTX study found that larger trucks would divert almost 25% of all carload and intermodal rail traffic (excluding coal and ores), resulting in 330 billion new truck ton-miles every year. “Bigger but fewer” trucks also fails from a historical perspective: Following every national truck weight limit increase in modern history, more, not fewer, trucks have appeared on our highways.

Second, advocates of heavier and larger trucks imply highways will see very little impact. One proposal calls for a third rear trailer axle for tractor-trailers carrying 97,000 pounds, claiming this will result in less pavement damage than a similar 80,000-pound truck with a standard rear tandem trailer. Pavement experts appear to be divided on this, but one can ask: If another trailer axle reduces pavement wear, why don’t trucking companies promoting this view simply add another axle to their 80,000-pound trailers immediately? But there is no doubt that heavier trucks will exacerbate deterioration of roadway bridges, problematic for states facing significant inventories of roadway bridges rated as “substandard.” Heavier trucks will simply make this problem worse.

Third, many highway safety experts strongly disagree with the idea that bigger trucks are as safe as current trucks. Both the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association have issued warnings of the safety hazards presented by heavier trucks. Law enforcement agencies across the country, including the National Troopers Coalition and the National Sheriffs’ Association, have formally declared their opposition to bigger trucks. And when higher federal CAFE standards result in smaller and lighter passenger vehicles, heavier trucks sharing public highways ignores the laws of physics, placing all of us driving on the national highway network at a higher level of risk of harm in a truck-auto accident.

Finally, federal officials should not overlook the negative impact bigger trucks would have on our multimodal system. The Martland and TTX diversion studies make clear that a substantial reduction in freight rail shipments would occur. This has been confirmed at the state level, when increases in weight allowances on state roads created an almost immediate loss of rail traffic for some short line railroads. The Government Accountability Office understands this, quoting USDOT statistics in stating, “[L]arger trucks weighing over 100,000 pounds pay only 40% of their costs. From an economic standpoint, this relationship between revenue and cost distorts the competitive environment by making it appear that heavier trucks are a less expensive shipping method than they actually are and puts other modes, such as rail and maritime, at a disadvantage.”

This is not simply a “railroader vs. trucker” fight. Most people appreciate the role trucking plays in our national economy. But favoring a handful of shippers and trucking companies with cheaper rates or lower costs is not good public policy. Continuing, without change, the current national weight and size limits on all federal highways is the right policy decision, one that all of us need to support.

Jerry Vest is Vice President, Government and Industry Affairs for Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which owns and operates short line and regional railroads in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands.

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