Rail freight transportation has grown over time with the expansion of the population and economic activity in the U.S. The markets are dynamic. Freight demand is driven primarily by the geographic distribution of the population and the level of economic activity (consumer spending and online ordering have made UPS the largest single rail customer). The U.S. freight rail system owns and operates more than 138,000 track miles and is the dominant mode by tons and ton-miles for shipments moved between 750 to 2,000 miles. Major categories of rail freight flow include:
Rail intermodal volume in 2017 was a record 13.7 million containers and trailers, accounting for 24% of total revenue for major U.S. railroads (and up 7% in the second quarter of this year compared to the same period last year). Intermodal has become the largest single source of U.S. freight rail revenue. Exports and imports count for about half of the U.S. intermodal traffic. Chicago and Los Angeles/Long Beach are the top U.S. metropolitan areas for intermodal volume. In these long-haul markets, double-stack trains are more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly than transportation by truck.
Coal volume has declined in recent years, but coal remains a crucial commodity for U.S. energy production (and for the railroads). In 2017 coal accounted for 32.2% of originated tonnage for the Class Ones, far more than any other commodity; 522.5 million tons of coal were loaded, up from 491.7 million tons in 2016 (coal shipments accounted for 14.8% of rail revenues in 2017, behind only intermodal).
Most coal is consumed at power plants with 70% delivered by rail. Different fuels dominate electric generation in different states; for example, in Indiana coal accounts for 72% of electrical power generation, while in California coal accounts for virtually none. The key to coal’s future lies in the demand for electricity. If natural gas exports result in an increase in gas prices, expect coal-based generation to be more competitive.
Historically, pipelines transported the most crude oil. But crude oil production outpaced growth in pipeline capacity and railroads filled the gap. As crude oil output surged, so did crude oil carloads on U.S. railroads. Rail can serve nearly every refinery in the U.S. giving market participants the flexibility to shift product to different places in response to market needs and pricing opportunities. And, rail infrastructure can be expanded more quickly than pipelines.
The U.S. is the world’s largest grain producer (an average of 569 million tons per year from 2008 to 2017). As of the end of 2017, the North American grain car fleet consisted of nearly 283,000 railcars. Class One’s originated 1.46 million carloads (5.1% of all carloads, 144.1 million tons, or 8.9% of tonnage). The grain markets are complex and are influenced by weather, soil, consumer demand (both in the U.S. and for export), crop yields, competing grain exporting countries, exchange rates, government policy (think ethanol) and ocean freight rates.
Rail originated 2.1 million carloads of chemicals (7.4% of total carloads, third behind coal and intermodal). The vast majority of chemical traffic includes industrial chemicals, plastics, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals. The highest volume chemical carried by U.S. railroads is ethanol. Historically only coal and intermodal have provided more revenue to railroads than chemicals.
Investment in transportation equipment is made when earnings are robust enough to attract the capital needed to pay for it. With multiple opportunities available, you need to be alert to the risks and rewards of your decisions. To do that you’ll need the experience to evaluate current transportation facts.
Identifying alternatives, coping with uncertainty. For Rail Investment Opportunities Call RESIDCO.
AAR statistics demonstrate rail freight traffic volumes correlate closely with changes in overall GDP (except for grain, coal, and crude oil product movements, which are not tied to GDP). With tax policy improving the outlook for GDP growth (2018 is now expected to be 2.9%), the Conference Board index of leading indicators is the highest it has ever been (at 108.1); and similarly, consumer confidence is the highest it’s been since November 2000 (at 130.8).
Improving jobs, wages, and higher after-tax pay will lead to rising consumer spending. More spending will lead to higher rail traffic (February was the best month ever for crushed stone and sand). Yet year to date rail traffic is failing to keep pace with 2017: what about those ‘other’ commodities that move independent of GDP?
Grain loadings include barley, corn, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, soybeans, and wheat. Overall demand of U.S. grains remains strong since U.S. farmers produce three-quarters of the nation’s food. But America’s agricultural dominance has eroded as our share of global corn, soybean and wheat exports has shrunk by more than half since the mid-1970s due to bumper crops from Brazil and Russia. At the margin, exports remain important (with Asia, driven by China, remains a top export market).
Coal based electricity generation now accounts for 30.1% of U.S. electricity generation, with natural gas at 31.7% and renewables at 9.6% (the balance generated by nuclear, hydro, and ‘other’). Global market forces are driving export of steam and metallurgical coal to Europe and other parts of the world. In the U.S. met-coal market is strong, but the steam side is weaker due to the market’s turn to the now less expensive natural gas (thanks to the fracking boom).
Crude Oil output is increasing due to rising crude prices. Exports of crude and petroleum products have more than doubled since 2010 (restrictions on exporting domestically produced crude were lifted in December 2015). The Energy Information Administration reports U.S. crude oil production averaged 9.3 million barrels per day (“b/d”) in 2017 and expects U.S. crude oil production to be 10. 7 million b/d in 2018.
The result? As of March 1, 2018, 327,816 freight cars (19.9% of the 1.6 million-unit North American rail freight car fleet) have not moved loaded in the previous 60 days. Car types in storage? Grain covered Hoppers 29%, Crude Oil Tanks 33%, Coal Gondolas 13% and Open Top Hoppers 13%.
Whether Trump’s ‘tariff gambit’ is a negotiating tool to ‘improve’ international trade and NAFTA renegotiations, or meant to improve U.S. domestic steel and aluminum production and jobs, steel imports continue to flow in . Half of global steel production goes into buildings and infrastructure with sixteen percent used in automobiles, shipping and rail transport production. Lower priced imports have held inflation in check. From 2010 to 2015 annual inflation as measured by the CPI averaged 1.5%; but for 2016 and 2017 rates inched up to 2.1%. This January’s inflation report showed the Producer Price Index advancing by .7%! Tariffs will force railcar manufacturers to increase new car pricing. Scrap metal pricing will increase and encourage the retirement of older railcars. Expect asset values and lease rates on existing rail equipment to improve.
No simple answers. It’s data, knowledge, and experience that drives results. Call RESIDCO.
 Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2018, Forecasters Fret Over Trade Rifts, page A2.
 Additionally, the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index was 102.0 in March, highest since January 2004.
 Job growth was strong in February with 313,000 net new jobs created (the 89th straight month of net job gains, the longest streak on record).
 296,376 moved empty since their last loaded move, while 31,440 that had not moved are believed to be in storage, still loaded.
 Even with the dollar weakening (since the beginning of 2017).
Transportation equipment investment is a long-term affair. It’s a complex business since investment risk and profit profiles change over an investment’s duration. At the macroeconomic level, the stage of the business cycle affects the value of everything, including leased air and rail equipment. When the economy is in recession, fewer people are flying, the values of aircraft are lower, industrial production suffers, and less rail traffic is moving. In an expanding economy more goods are being imported, produced and delivered.
2018 bodes well for Transportation Investment
The Global economic outlook is stable to improving and with tax reform the U.S. recovery will enjoy a second wind. Whether aircraft, engines, rail rolling stock or locomotives, market demand influence equipment values and lease rates.
Aviation fleet capacity is growing in order to serve expected future market conditions. Ultra-Low-Cost Carriers (“ULCC”) are expanding service, both domestically and internationally with a view to taking share from the legacy carriers. It’s a forward-looking industry, on the cutting edge of science and engineering, using many of the world’s most advanced materials, technologies, and manufacturing capabilities. Long-term investment decisions strongly impact an air carrier’s economic performance over the years an aircraft is in operation (and a lessor/investor’s residual profitability at lease termination).
The rail industry’s backlog for new railcars of 66,561 railcars implies approximately 6 quarters of future deliveries. On the aircraft side, Boeing’s website claims an order backlog of 5,744 units; while Airbus claims a backlog of 6,874 planes (that’s over 9 years of aircraft production at current production rates). Yet year to date rail carload traffic (other than intermodal) lags GDP growth. Coal loadings reached their highest monthly levels in August (since October 2015), and further improvement looks uncertain. Crude by rail has been a source of downward pressure and grain exports are slowing. The oversupply of locomotive power remains (an estimated 2500 units remain in storage). It’s only an active secondary market and the energies of creative portfolio managers that will unlock this transport capacity over the medium term. Otherwise, attrition and scrap are the only tools available.
How Leasing Companies Can Help
In these markets leasing companies play an important role, most obviously by providing immediately available equipment in contrast to the long lead times that result from OEM backlogs. Equipment acquired under an operating lease is a hybrid between an investment and a financing, offering ‘quiet enjoyment’ during the lease period in exchange for a rental payment. The risk the lessor carries is the lessee’s flexibility to abandon or purchase at the end of the lease period. Making informed investment decisions is challenging without extensive experience in the equipment markets, credit evaluation skills, an appreciation of changing tax and lease accounting rules, and an understanding of the complexities of multijurisdictional contract law and bankruptcy codes.
It’s a process involving strategy and planning for future market potential. Meeting the needs of unanticipated and uncertain future markets demands the business model go beyond the decision to acquire or dispose of equipment. Portfolio managers must be able to actively manage capacity through economic cycles. Research shows risk assessments range from ‘gut feel,’ to simple sensitivity analysis, to the application of more sophisticated techniques to judge the likelihood of potential outcomes and suggest alternative paths. Success requires uncovering insights about end-user needs. At the start of your investment, it’s not easy to take into account everything that can happen over the next 30 years.
What factors can be quantified? What really drives asset values? More information adds to the quality of your decision. Models do not make decisions. Experience does.
There is room for growth in 2018. To manage your investments confidently work with RESIDCO.
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On the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Harvey forced the shutdown of refineries and disrupted the production of plastic resins and refined oil products. The Union Pacific and Burlington Northern have lifted embargos for shipments to, from, or passing through the Gulf region. They continue to evaluate affected areas as repairs complete on port and intermodal facilities, switching yards, track, bridges, and signal operations.
How Rail Equipment Traffic has been Affected
The latest weekly AAR traffic reports U.S. rail carload and intermodal volumes ‘tumbled’ in week 37 while year to date traffic remained up 4.1% and intermodal units up 3.4%. Since the shale revolution shifted crude production inland from the Gulf (there was little damage to fracking activities), there is no expectation of a shortage of crude. The Hurricanes will have traffic impacts on certain commodities. But pent-up demand from manufacturers in the affected areas and rebuilding efforts will boost rail traffic in the fourth quarter and into 2018. The will also impact the scrap markets will be felt in a similar manner, as scrap will come out of the damaged areas (light iron and shreddables first, then automobiles and heavier steel).
CSX and “Precision Railroading”
Whether it’s a natural disaster or another unseen event, disruption provides an opportunity to bring to market different value propositions. Disruption changes how we think, behave, and go about our day to day business. The Class Ones and shippers consistently strive to improve operational efficiency and maximize asset utilization. An example: CSX as it transitions to ‘precision railroading’.
Since Hunter Harrison disclosed he was leaving the Canadian Pacific with plans to join the CSX, its shares surged from $36.88 to $45.51, adding $7 Billion in value. He’s a unique talent having taken the Illinois Central, Canadian National, and Canadian Pacific from worst in class to hugely profitable businesses.
CSX’s Vision and Strategy
Harrison’s vision? Dismantle the ‘hub and spoke’ systems widely deployed to a ‘point to point’ system. This would eliminate yard stops, handling, and increase the amount of freight carried and delivered. At the same time it would reduce investment in locomotive power, cars and switching equipment.
The key metrics CSX monitors are train velocity, terminal dwell, and cars on line. Downtime and delays are to be avoided. He is pushing customers to shift dispatching cars from five days a week to every day. The approach intends to shrink delivery times by keeping the assets moving and minimizing idle time in rail yards. Cars move directly from their origin to their destination and deliver the same or greater amounts of freight with fewer cars and locomotives.
The goal of this strategy is clear. It’s an operations mindset. Harrison believes this back to basics focused approach will drive superior financial performance. Implementation has been rocky since it’s been incredibly disruptive to both employees and shippers. But the strategy seeks to deliver value to CSX shippers and shareholders by ensuring transportation assets respond to changing circumstances as opportunities for profitable growth. The result seeks to improve CSX profitability while reducing delivery times and shipper freight cost.
Assessing Your Rail Equipment Investment
Harrison senses operational efficiency and efficient asset utilization ultimately drive rail profitability. As you analyze your rail equipment investment be careful of projecting data into the future. Historical data is usually the most reliable, but that data will be an accurate guide only if the future resembles the past. Automating your analytics can lead to insights that formerly only highly experienced analysts could derive. You must overlay that analysis with intuition and skill to unearth where future values will appear.
Recognize disruption as an opportunity for growth. Competitiveness is doing what customers want. Staying competitive requires a willingness and ability to recognize patterns and to learn. If successful, the CSX example may provide a template to revive American manufacturing. Rail equipment investment dynamics may change. The future is not guaranteed. Work with experts who integrate finance, rail equipment expertise to optimize value particularly when disruption occurs. Work with RESIDCO.
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The first half of 2016 has seen its share of volatility. Globalization, central bank actions, the impact of the internet (speeding the flow of information and creating social networks), Presidential election politics, acts of global terror, and Brexit are all phenomena that have contributed. Historically, markets have not been as volatile.
Declining rail freight volumes continue to pressure North American Railroads. July carloads declined 8.8%, led by coal at 17.5% (U.S. coal production has dropped to its lowest level since 1981). Crude by rail has declined 45% in 2016. Class One railroads are storing more locomotives and railcars. With less equipment on line increased train speeds have allowed the roads to more efficiently serve customers, further reducing equipment demand. Air travel is down due to terrorism and currency swings. Lower jet fuel pricing has improved margins and allowed air carriers to add capacity; the resulting competition has reduced revenue per available seat mile and increased pressure on air carrier yields.
Economic activity drives traffic, and demand for transportation influences equipment pricing at the margin. Transportation services cannot be ‘stored’. Unsold seats on a flight, unused air-cargo capacity, empty freight cars, and parked locomotives represent lost revenue. Are we at a bottom? The 34 nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (‘OECD’) thinks so. The OECD expects U.S. growth, as measured by GDP, to slow to 1.8% in 2016, but to then accelerate in 2017 to 2.2%.
Political, policy, business, and investment leaders constantly grapple with the increasingly fickle cycles of consumer and business confidence. Is the world is in a ‘rut’ because of a chronic shortage of demand for goods and services and an extended period of low interest rates? Short term thinking, uncertainty, over regulation, anxieties, and a lack of confidence in the future have impacted our economy’s structural growth rate and contributed to a deterioration in productivity. When economic freedom is suppressed, growth fades, and when growth fades it takes the American Dream with it. Our Presidential candidates? If elected, one has stated, “coal miners and coal companies will be put out of business” as part of a clean energy agenda. In contrast, the other would reduce taxes and government regulation.
In this environment, agility, adaptability, and an open mind are essential tools. Asset allocation is critical and risk management is key. Volatility creates opportunities to buy equipment at discounted prices. Experience teaches staying the course proves its virtue in the long run. A long investment horizon diminishes the effects of volatility. Traffic may be down, but we expect it will stabilize through the rest of this year.
Choose wisely. Work with a firm that has a history of excellence, expertise and ethics. Call RESIDCO!
 Moody’s Investors Services, May 16, 2016.
 Association of American Railroads (‘AAR’) July, 2016 weekly U.S. rail traffic reports.
 Truewealth Publishing, July 21, 2016.
 August 3, 2016, U.S. Energy Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy.
 Progressive Railroading, Rail News: Mechanical, Fleet Stats, July 2016.
 The Associated Press, June 17, 2016.
 Larry Summers, “Zero interest rates are a systemic inhibitor of economic activity.” Bloomberg Businessweek, May 12, 2016.
 May 2, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, at a round table discussion with locals at the Williamson Health and Wellness Center in Williamson, W.V.
The coronavirus was the turning point. Schools and universities are being closed. Public activities are being canceled. Air travel and supply chains are being disrupted. Companies are telling employees to stay put. The virus constitutes a force majeure event. Even before the U.S. ban on travel from Europe, Air Carriers were reacting by trimming capacity, […]