Buffett and Burlington Northern: A Bet on the Past or the Future?

burlington northern train photo

Mike was positive when he wrote Warren Buffett Makes a $44 Billion (!) Bet on Trains, Buys BNSF; Business Week's Bruce Nussbaum isn't, and calls Warren Buffett's purchase of Burlington Northern a "bet against innovation....Buffett just paid $44 billion for a 19th century technology platform, a railroad, that carries 20th century goods--coal, agriculture, imports from Asia, petroleum. This is a vision of an America mired in the past and in economic and political decline."

Buffet says "an efficient and well-maintained rail system" will play a starring role in future prosperity.....it's an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States."

It is also a bet on the most fuel efficient land-based form of transport; a gallon of fuel moves a ton of goods 155 miles on truck; a train moves it 413 miles.


It is hardly a 19th century platform, either. Containers on trains transformed the shipment of goods in North America, and continue to innovate, converting to newer double-stacked trains that are even more fuel efficient.

This week Jim Kunstler wrote that It's Time to Rebuild Our Passenger Railroad System in Alternet:

Rebuilding the nation's passenger railroad has got to be put at the top of our priority list. We had a system not so long ago that was the envy of the world; now we have service that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.

Burlington Northern carries freight, but the passenger trains ride on their rails, and now Warren Buffett owns them. I think that is a bet on a future of fuel efficient travel and transport.

Nussbaum continues:

I'm hoping that Buffett's vision of the future is wrong. I'm hoping that a US economy based on making, not consuming, green, not carbon-centric, based on digital not metal network platforms, will drive economic growth and prosperity.

But unless someone invents the Star Trek transporter, we still have to move goods and people, and the train is the most efficient way to do it.

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