2019 - Year of the Short Line? More (NEARS & ASLRRA) Rail Conference Takeaways
Back off the road for a little bit, just in time for the rails’ Q1/19 earnings reporting period (see Preview tomorrow and our efforts to decipher all of the quarter’s moving parts!). Meanwhile, I attended two major conferences, the North East Association of Rail Shippers in Baltimore straight into the Short Line (ASLRRA) Convention, both of which yielded a few choice nuggets, and more, for understanding the modern freight rail industry….and the changing & growing role of short lines within the industry.
North East Rail Shippers’ (NEARS) spring meeting in Baltimore was all about the impact of PSR – with a short line/regional twist. The key-note speaker was Gil Lamphere of IC/CN creation fame (and also a former CSX Board member), now of Mid-Rail, a virtual, well-financed (“well over $1B to invest) short line/rail acquisition company (apparently still waiting on deal one). Gil highlighted his career working with Hunter Harrison and PSR, and how it can be applied in the short line/regional segment – to mitigate what he called the “arrogance of the long lines “ (nice phrase) and the “Cult of the OR” (my phrase). Freightwaves (Joanna Marsh) covered Gil’s and my speeches on OR, etc: https://www.freightwaves.com/news/railroad/should-rail-look-beyond-operating-ratio .
PSR impacts Short Lines in a multitude of ways – and vice versa. The highlight of NEARS, aside from coinciding with the Orioles Opening Day, was the Short-Line Panel” with two members of the panel I put together at ASLRRA and RailTrends in 2018 – Pan Am and Anacostia & Pacific, along with local players Canton Railroad. The latter noted one thing that comes with overall PSR adoption is “more work for the SLs that the Class Ones used to do” – citing rate-making, (local) marketing, and hand-holding”. To which I would add, of course, pre=blocking and other first/last mile operations. This new, “over the transom” workload will be met with some small carrier pushback, the panel said (although when I questioned their ability to push back hard against a carrier such as Union Pacific, they admitted that the leverage wasn’t exactly even). It wasn’t of course, all sweetness and light as a renewed regulatory challenge could well be coming (see below). The biggest opportunity should come from the renewed focus on the car-load business at the major rails – see the large number of Class One internal short line meetings - the short line sweet spot….
Some other NEARS nuggets:
• A rail equipment panel (GATX, National Steel Car, CAI) was perhaps a tad too optimistic on what they thought would be a rather minimal impact of PSR on the rail car
leasing business (“cycle times increase initially then decrease” – I am not sure at all about that)
• CAI, a global leader in international containers, is looking to expand in the domestic business, it seems….
• The high cost reefer boxcar market could be revived if the cycle times improve from ~7X/year (!!) to once a month – something that could well happen with PSR, unlocking a new market opportunity in a low current share environment
• CP’s CBR head said they were pretty committed to enforcing (through market means) a ban on all tank cars but the new 117Js….
• “Jason’s Survey” confirmed a general sense of reduced/reducing shipper economic expectations, though nothing too drastic….
• During the NEARS “PSR-palooza” the WSJ published their take on the process, “clean sheeting” and all: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-revolution-sweeping-railroads-upends-how-america-moves-its-stuff-11554302583?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=3 , discussed last week, but nicely timed for the full day immersion in Baltimore.
The Short Line Convention (“Connections”) in Orlando was crowded (1700+) and happy affair, given the climate of renewed importance for their sector – and the smell of money as valuations and interest seem to rise exponentially. In fact the increase in deal interest seems to be pushing aside some, but not all, of the strategic interests – it was widely taken for granted, for instance, that the Bloomberg-reported rumors that GWR was going private were in fact true (no comment., of course, from the company, which wasn’t very present at the event – in fact the absence of short line holding company leadership at the event is a rare long time issue for me, one that I am sure will be addressed by new ASLRRA CEO Chuck Baker). Their was deal talk all over the mouse-town, with one group said to be in talks on as many as five opportunities after the latest deal accomplished, the Regional rail purchase by UK-based 3i (www.3i.com ) reverberated through the halls. There is hope of more Class One line sales (or leases), with CSX as a leader (although their process has been choppy: 2 done, 6+ to go; unsubstantiated fears exist that short term cash interests are competing with ling term business develop
THOUGHTS FROM THE NEARS CONFERENCE
THE COWEN INSIGHT
While shippers remain concerned about PSR implementation, early results for "The Next Three" (recent PSR implementers NSC, UNP, KSU) are far better than the recency bias created by CSX's early PSR struggles. Shippers remain in a "show me" mode while rails look for increased business after service improves.
NSC Chief Marketing Officer Alan Shaw
Alan Shaw, EVP and Chief Marketing Officer of Norfolk Southern, was the keynote speaker for day two and highlighted how his railroad is focused on changing the culture and the way the railroad operates. They are taking a more measured and balanced approach to PSR with a long-term focus on growth and productivity (with equal importance given to both goals). NSC is re-engineering its interface with its customers in a collaborative way. The railroad is clean-sheeting their terminals first and once they are done with terminals they will turn their focus to road operations. Additionally, NSC is converting its DC locomotives to AC locomotives, which should increase the power of the fleet and allow the railroad to operate with fewer locomotives. Early results appear favorable.
The Shippers' Perspective On PSR
Two shippers (Kevin Acker of The Chemours Company and Ross Corthell of the Packaging Corp. of America) spoke about their current experience with PSR implementation. While investors may look back to the last implementation by CSX and the bad taste it left in many shippers' mouths, these two shippers noted that this is not the case thus far with The Next Three. One of the shippers stated that UNP's results were mixed but believes that some of the early issues could have been weather related. Another commented that NSC had done a good job thus far and that their service (as measured by specific origin/destination pairs) had improved 15%. If this is sustainable, the shipper added that they would need far fewer rail cars.
Gil Lamphere On The History Of PSR
Long time rail executive Gil Lamphere brought the audience down the PSR memory lane as he recalled the first conversations with the operating system's creator Ed Moyers (Hunter Harrison perfected PSR but did not invent it). Mr. Lamphere had pretty high praise for the operating model but noted that operating ratio improvement was just a byproduct and not a goal of the original PSR. He stressed that people and assets that are not in motion are considered redundant in the PSR model. He reflected on the very rapid pace at which Hunter was able to implement PSR at CSX and noted he broke alot of eggs. He spoke highly of the current efforts of KSU, NSC and UNP and applauded their measured approach.
Cowen NEARS Survey
Once again, Cowen sponsored a survey among NEARS conference attendees. When asked whether they are more confident in the direction of the economy today than they were three months ago, 37% of shipper attendees answered that they are more confident, while 63% answered that they aren't. We contrast this with our 1Q19 Rail Shipper Survey, which showed that 48% of shippers are more confident than they were three months ago, but note that the NEARS survey consists of a smaller, geographic-specific (North East) subset of shippers, compared with a broader shipper base for our 1Q19 Rail Shipper Survey.
Second, we inquired about shippers' experiences with "The Next Three" Class I's, the three recent adopters of PSR, NSC, UNP, and KSU, as each rail undergoes a transformation. 45% of survey participants said that they were contacted by the Next Three about their PSR plans and implementation process; 43% said that they have had negative service impacts from the early PSR implementation; and 57% expect negative service impacts in the future.
Lastly, we surveyed NEARS attendees on the railcar market. 28% answered that their need for railcars has increased over the last three months, 6% answered that it decreased, and 67% answered that it remained the same. Asked whether they are concerned about the availability of railcars, 15% are "Very Concerned", 47% are "Somewhat Concerned", and 38% are "Not Concerned".
Jason H. Seidl
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Former Harrison colleague: 'Hunter's the daddy of precision railroading
By Bill Stephens | April 9, 2019
Some of E. Hunter Harrison’s former colleagues are expressing surprise that a railroad financier credits former Illinois Central CEO Ed Moyers with developing the concepts behind Precision Scheduled Railroading.
Last week Gil Lamphere, a former board member at IC, Canadian National, and CSX Transportation, told a shipper conference that credit for creating Precision Scheduled Railroading should go to Moyers.
Lamphere financed the founding of MidSouth, the regional created in 1986 from former IC lines, and three years later led the acquisition of the IC itself. Moyers found success with his operating plan at MidSouth, then brought it to the IC before Harrison was hired to lead operations, Lamphere says.
But several of Harrison’s former colleagues disagree.
While Harrison and Moyers shared similar views, they say Harrison was the driving force behind the scheduled railroading principles that turned a struggling IC into a highly profitable Class I railroad.
Gordon Trafton, who worked with Harrison at Burlington Northern, Illinois Central, and Canadian National, was part of the service design team that Harrison put to work in 1988 to create the first scheduled railroad plan. The plan was based on an effort Harrison led to develop the first car trip plans at BN in the early 1980s.
“Our job was to figure out how to trip-plan all merchandise cars on the railroad, coordinating the train schedules to do so that included block swapping and the elimination of switching in yards throughout the system,” Trafton recalls.
The objectives were to provide consistent and reliable service while controlling costs and maximizing asset utilization.
The trip plans were an outgrowth of the scheduled railroading concepts Harrison initially developed while at the Frisco and refined in his early days at BN, when he was an assistant vice president of transportation after BN's acquisition of the Frisco in 1980.
“No one was more passionate than Hunter about service, cost control, and asset utilization,” Trafton says.
But BN management at the time was not interested in Harrison’s idea of a scheduled railroad, Trafton says, which prompted Harrison to depart for the IC.
“The reality is Hunter is the only one who has been successful at a number of Class I’s in taking the scheduled railroading concepts, implementing them, and refining them over the years,” Trafton says.
Tom Utroska, who retired from Canadian National in 2001 as vice president of transportation, was an assistant division superintendent when Moyers and Harrison arrived at Illinois Central in 1989.
With the IC in dire financial straits, Moyers was by necessity intensely focused on cost-control, Utroska says. Moyers came to the railroad from MidSouth with a plan to single-track the IC main line and install centralized traffic control, Utroska recalls.
Moyers also was interested in proper use of a railroad’s assets. Utroska remembers taking a hi-rail trip with Moyers, who asked why a large pile of tie plates was sitting near a depot. Utroska told him they’d been there for more than a year, awaiting a rail relay project.
“A railroad that operates like that, with assets laying around, doesn’t deserve to be in business,” Utroska recalls Moyers saying.
But it was Harrison who put greater emphasis on improved utilization of assets like locomotives, freight cars, and train crews, Utroska says. Even more important: Harrison’s car scheduling system that covered the movement of cars from origin to destination.
“The key metric was trip-plan compliance. It was all Hunter’s push,” Utroska says. “He made us so aware of asset utilization and cost control.”
What Moyers did, Utroska says, was give people responsibility and then hold them accountable. And that created an environment where Harrison could prove the scheduled railroading concepts he had developed while at BN, he says.
“When Hunter came to the ICRR, he inherited a rag-tag group of operating officers, many of whom had been brow-beat for having fresh ideas,” Utroska says. “In one of his first meetings with the operating officers, he said, ‘If you stick with me, I’ll make you successful.’ He took that group … and led them to success. In short order, the ICRR went from the worst-run railroad to the most efficient. He was a leader and damn few of them exist.”
“Hunter’s the daddy of precision railroading,” Utroska says.
That’s a title Harrison never sought, according to Harrison biographer Howard Green, whose book, “Railroader,” was published last year.
“Hunter did not claim to be the sole inventor of Precision Scheduled Railroading and he said so,” Green says. “He began thinking about the concept in the early 1980s when he was at Burlington Northern, with the help of a few others including a computer programmer named Sue Rathe who provided him wi
BNSF & GWR Earnings - It's More About the Conversation - Tony Hatch
Greetings – Last two and next the Review….But what was most interesting wasn’t the actual results reported by BNSF (obviously via Berkshire Hathaway) and Genesee & Wyoming – both weather-impacted, the latter slightly below consensus but with reiterated FY Guidance – but was said by their respective top leaders, Messer’s Buffett and Hellman, at official Q&As. Both leaders are, of course, esteemed men – the former the “Oracle of Omaha” and the latter a former winner of the “Progressive Railroading Magazine/RailTrends Innovator of the Year”. Thus we have to take what they say seriously – Buffett on PSR and Union Pacific (“we pay a lot of attention to what is going on at the UP” in terms of margins/OR) and Hellman on M&A in the short line regional space and the role of PE & Infrastructure Funds (and whether they see themselves as a buyer or a seller). First, the results:
BNSF reported a slight increase in revenues (2%) on a 5%+ volume drop – of course heavily impacted by the floods that hurt UP, too….expenses declined 1% (helped by some one-time items – including a “retirement plan curtailment gain”), and while the reported OR increased slightly (20bps) to 68.1%, the adjusted OR dropped 200bps to 66.5%. PTI was up 10%, net income up 9% (without the boost the other rails gained from their share repo programs). The performance of their “Consumer” Business Unit (IM, plus autos) was initially worrisome – revenues up 8% but volumes down 6% (due to lower international numbers and “increased truck competition”; uh-oh). The rest flowed like this: Industrial Products (revenues +8%, units up 1%+); Ag (-3%/-7%); Coal (-8% 15%/-10%). They didn’t break out the weather impact, of course, but it was bad for them as for their chief rival. Capex will be up ~8% ($3.6B vs. $3.3B).
Speaking of UP, as a reminder, they reported a 15% increase in EPS on a 1% increase in OPI ($3.5B of share repurchases - $18.1mm shares - in the quarter); units were down 2% and the OR improved 100bps to 63.6%. That’s pretty comparable although the OR is 300bps lower for UP. Comparing business units, UP reported a worse revenue performance in “Energy” (coal) and Industrial Products and flat in Ag. But UP’s “Premium” outperformed BNSF’s “Consumer” – in units (+2% compared to -6%) but not in revenues (+3% compared to +8%).
So what’s “Uncle Warren” all worked up about? In a first, the team of Jain & Abel, the latter overseeing BNSF within the BH portfolio, joined WB and Charlie Munger for the in the 6-hour marathon Q&A session at Buffett-Fest in Omaha over the weekend. To be sure, the business press didn’t cover rail questions – but Bill Stephens of Trains did. The Oracle fielded “several questions” on the PR difference between BNSF and UNP – and revealed that he was very aware of the PSR story in the industry dating back to EHH & the IC. He stated: “It’s not like we’re losing business to anybody but they have been operating more efficiently, in effect, than we have during the last few years and, like I say, we take notice of it; We’ll see what that does in terms of shipper satisfaction….but we are measuring ourselves very carefully against what they do and if changes are needed we’ll do them.” And: We are not above copying anything that is successful”….is this why Matt Rose left? Where is the business mix/growth potential/ROI argument, Mr. Buffett?
GWR results came in 3 cents below consensus, but the weather impact on them (and on their interchange partners) cost them 9 cents – and they too reiterated FYG despite the under-water start to the year. North America was where the weather was, of course but Australian JV results were slightly below original guidance due mostly to more severe FX and drought effects (in fact they exited a grain branch business in WA). Oz is still seen by GWR (and their 49% partner, Macquarie) as a growth opportunity with contractual, stable characteristics (“and its free cash flow attributes are extremely strong”). And, in a role-reversal, UK/Europe, the UK came in ahead of plan, posting a positive OR (97.9% versus 101.6%) – yet still adding another charge (of $5.5mm) to Q1 results. But the focus was on NA; some takeaways:
• Safety was great in of itself, but GWR slipped from #1 to number 4 – and remember, everyone had winter
• GWR eliminated a “Region” going from 3 to 2; they also consolidated some dispatching
• They added (leased) two new short lines back home in Indiana, thereby enabling them to fill in the holes and create a 400-mile contiguous railway – back-to-the-future for their “cluster” strategy; they also had some nice Industrial Development wins
• Their volume of -1.2% still outperformed the Class One carload level for Q1/19 by 220bps
So, the renewed Short Line Value Proposition, enhanced by Class One PSR conversion and its merchandise focus,