Monday, May 21, 2018

Railroad Renaissance or Dead Man Walking

There's a lot you can find out by just looking.  The problem is knowing where to look.

A recent thread on a Trains magazine got me thinking.  Conventional wisdom says that railroads are back.  That they're having a renaissance.  But, one fellow there says "not so fast", and he trotted out some data to show it.


He had two data points about a decade apart.  I wondered what the rest of the data set looked like, so I dug into it.  I particularly wanted to know about NS - for obvious reasons.

Step one.  Get the data.  Edgar has it as NS published annual carloads and revenue by line of business in the 10-K.  Great!  Just copy and paste it into Excel, no sweat.

Actually, some sweat.  From year to year, NS arrayed the data differently.  In the older reports, they covered 5 years.  Lately, 3 years.  So, I grabbed and pulled and copy and pasted and "paste special, transposed" and "find and replaced" and cntl-c, cntl-v'd my way to 133 rows of data covering 1999 through 2017 by year.

Some basic results:

Well, okay.  Doesn't seem awful.  Coal is dying.  We already know that.  Intermodal is zooming.  We know that, too.  But Merchandise traffic seems sick.

  • Every line takes a dip in 2009 for the recession.  
  • Coal dives after 2011.  
  • Merchandise never gets back to pre-2007 level.
  • Intermodal is off to the races.
What about revenue?

This is better! 

  • Merchandise revenue is growing nicely
  • Intermodal growing, too, passing coal in 2014.
  • Only coal is falling apart.
Here's the skinny on rates:

It's RPU that's driving the Merchandise revenue.  Look at the inflection point about 2004, when the "Thoroughbred Operating Plan" took hold - NS's version of scheduled railroading.

Also, look at how flat the RPU for Intermodal is.  Clearly, it's volume that's driving the revenue.

I'm going to add one more set of charts.  A set that might indicate the overall direction of NS.  I normalized the data with two factors.  One is GDP.  As the economy grows, one would expect rail traffic to grow proportionally.  The other is inflation.  It's always good to put money inconstant dollars so you don't mistake inflation for growth.  Here's what unit and revenue look like normalized for these factors.

If the lines are flat, then business is keeping up with the economy - growing just as fast.  If the line is going down, then the business isn't keeping up.  If the line is going up, then the business is growing faster than the economy.

Parsing this out.  Merchandise seems to by dying.  Plain and simple, although it seems to have plateaued the last five year or so, it hasn't come close to the pre-recession levels.

Intemodal is growing.  Maybe.  The overall trend is up, but the past four years are flat.  This likely means that conditions aren't great for truckload conversions.  Lack of investment in new, speedier lanes, perhaps?  There are lots of trucks on I-85 and I-81 that aren't being "converted".

Coal is just plain dead and I wouldn't plan on any resurrection.

(Note that I put Merch units on the RH y axis so it was easier to compare)

If you put it all together and look revenue, it's even worse.  Merchandise isn't taking in any more money than it did 20 years ago.  Intermodal, despite the volume growth, isn't growing revenue faster than the economy.  It doesn't look like it's going to be a replacement for coal, unless the company makes some investment for a cost and speed competitive Crescent Corridor or pulls a rabbit from their hat.

And, coal.  It's just dead.  It's okay to ride it to a stop, but if it keeps declining at the current rate since 2011, it'll be all gone in 25 years.

So, is NS in a stalled renaissance?  A flat-line existence where staying in business means finding cost efficiencies every year? Or, just having a long, protracted "going out of business" sale.

Don't listen to what they say.  Look at the data!  And, look where they spend their profits.  Hint:  It's not the Crescent Corridor.

These charts make me sad.

P.S. The only factor I didn't normalize for is revenue tons per car.  If car capacity is growing, that could bend some of these lines up a bit.  I believe it is, but I'm skeptical of the leverage...and I'm too lazy to dig out the data. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Strange Day

August 21, 2017.  Eclipse day.  We live in Atlanta, which is pretty close to the path of totality, so maybe that would be good enough.  But, "they" say that total is so much better?  Really?  Really!

Should we go?  Nothing else on the calendar, so...road trip!  Gotta get in the zone!

Where to go?  Altanta has over 5 million people and a good number of them might decide to head out to see the eclipse.   The closest spots were up I-985 and into the mountains or up I-85 to the South Carolina border.  Sounded like a recipe for traffic!

We joined forces with some friends, got out a map and decided on Abbeville SC.  Why Abbeville?  It's not near anything.  Except, maybe Greenwood SC. And, Elberton GA.  Ever heard of these places?  I didn't think so.  That's what made it so perfect.  Maybe nobody would think to go there.

It's 110 miles from home and eclipse started at 1 PM there, so we left home at 8 AM.  We arrived in Abbeville at 10:30 AM.  There was no traffic to speak of.  Couldn't say that about the other routes.

Red road are bad roads.

The whole way out, the sky was wall to wall blue.  Perfect eclipse weather!  We drove around the town a bit, and then stopped to walk around the town square.  The town all set up for the eclipse.  A very outgoing town councilman was set up raffling off a box of goodies.  A DJ was playing "eclipse music".  There were kids games and the shops were all offering "eclipse specials".  In the center of town was a monument to the beginning of the confederacy.  It seems the very first serious meeting about secession was held in Abbeville about two weeks after Lincoln's election in November 1860.  We also found out the town was also where the CSA ended their revolt.  Jefferson Davis's cabinet met for the last time in Abbeville.

Town Square, Abbeville, SC

Monument in town

Town visitor center with paintings of town's past, including last CSA cabinet meeting.

There were a couple peculiar storefronts in town.  One was a Sons of Confederate Veterans shop (?) where it looked like you could get all the CSA battle flags you'd ever want. The other was "Red Barn Likker".  Yep.  A micro distillery producing moonshine.  We skipped the former and took a closer look at the latter.  We got the 10 minute tour where they explained how the still worked - an Arkansas "double diamond" style still (who knew?) - and then some of us decided on the tasting.  Potent stuff.  They also sold all sorts of fruit-based mixers to make the stuff palatable.

Double D still


By then, we had decided to view the eclipse from a local little league field where there were picnic tables in the shade and open restrooms. We had packed a picnic lunch, not just because we are cheap, but because we thought the eclipse throngs might drain all the local restaurants of their inventory.  It turns out, the "eclipse throng" at the ball field were us and two other groups.  That's it.

Our spot.  Uh, oh.  Clouds!
We had excellent food -homemade potato salad sandwiches and homemade chocolate cookies. At one clock, we broke out our eclipse paraphernalia - glasses and pinhole lens.  At 1:09, it started. We could see it happening with our glasses and pinhole projection.

Then, a cloud wandered by and obscured the sun.  Uh, oh.  Clouds had been building all around.  They were moving rather slowly.  We kept our fingers crossed and started thinking about which way we might need to drive when the total eclipse started.

About half way

We got lucky.  Over the next hour, not only did we have little cloud obstruction, but the cloud cover actually dissipated.  Don't know why.  Maybe just dumb luck?  Maybe eclipse cooling kills clouds?

As 2 PM approached, you could start to notice the sun felt a lot less hot.  In fact, you couldn't tell the difference between being in the sun and the shade on your skin.  A bit after 2 PM, it started looking darker, as well - like early twilight.

We hunted around for natural pinhole projections and found a crepe myrtle doing a fine job.

At 2:30 PM, it was noticeably darker, but you could still see your shadow.  Then, with just about a minute to go at roughly 2:40, it was like someone dimming the house lights.  It darkened about that fast.  We watched through our glasses as the last edge of the sun disappeared behind the moon.  It was dark.  Like full-moon-night dark.  All the lights in the park came on.  Crickets started up.

Building lights on.  Bright horizon
You could look right at the sun without glasses!  Right at it!  A dark disc with a bright, white corona all around it.  The horizon was light, like at sunset.

Kind of like a weird full moon - with the center blotted out.

The two minute of totality came and went quickly.  Wow.  The "house lights" came back up.  Do it again!  When's the next one?  2024?  Arkansas?

Road trip!

Sunday, July 16, 2017


The big city!  Well, kind of.  Metropolitan Auckland has about 1.5 million people.  That makes it smaller than Pittsburgh. Heck, all of New Zealand is smaller than metropolitan Atlanta.

After hearing people elsewhere in New Zealand say, "...oh.  Auckland."  making it sound like some sort of miserable place, like people would say, "..oh Cleveland."  So, we didn't know what to expect.  Does Auckland have towering Alps?  No.  Raging rivers?  No.  What it does have is a neat harbor surrounded by interesting places to visit.

We spent two whole days in Auckland and a day on the road to Hobbiton and Rotorua.

The first day began with Dan jumping off a bridge.  Nothing wrong with that bridge, mind you.  It just needed jumping off.

Auckland Harbor Bridge.  Perfectly good bridge.  Just look at it!

Ready to go!

Heading out.

Bungee launch capsule 

Ready for launch


...surrounded by a perfectly good bridge.

On the rebound.

On the way back up.

Following that, we booked a bus tour.  As it turns out, we were the only ones that day and the bus was more of a minivan, so it was like getting a private tour.  During the tour, we discovered typical Auckland fall weather.  Nearly every hour had a 5 minute rain shower followed by 55 minutes of sunshine.  It is the poster child for "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes."  In fact, it should be the city slogan!

Auckland Harbor as seen from the bridge

Botanical Gardens

Peppers!  Or Capsicum!

Ferns everywhere!

Mt. Eden crater - just after a 5 minute shower

Michael Joseph Savage Memorial - also after a 5 minute shower

Michael Joseph Savage Memorial Park

St. Mary's.  Where Sir Edmund Hillary left for Everest.

The second day, we rented a car and took off for Rotorua via Hobbiton.  Hobbiton the set location for part of the Lord of the Rings movies.  They struck the set after the LOTR movies, but then had to build it all back again for the Hobbit movies, a few years later.  At the suggestion of the farmer, on whose land the set sits, the second build was made permanent and the tours of the place have been going great guns ever since.  Not cheap, either.  About $50US a head!


Our Hobbit Hole

Bag-end with famous fake tree

Bilbo's house.

Hobbit hole

Who knew Hobbits read Dickens?

"Free" beer in the Green Dragon

The Green Dragon

We beat a hasty retreat and managed to get to Rotorua and visit Te Puia with enough time to take in the Maori cultural show and walking tour of the geothermal area.

Maori cultural show - invitation, if all goes well.

Song and dance

Haka dance - getting ready for a battle

Audience participation portion of the haka dance

Cooking pool.  Pit of boiling water

Pohutu geyser

Geyser erupts about once an hour.  Each eruption lasts for over 40 minutes.

Pohutu geyser is right by a stream.

Bubbling mud pits

"Stuffy" the Kiwi.
 Te Puia also has a Kiwi enclosure with a couple of birds.
 This is the only one that was easy to see!

We drove back in the dark and called it a day.

Our last day in Auckland, we had more to do than we had time!  Ultimately, we took a very good harbor tour, which visited Rangitoto, a 600 year old volcanic island.

Ferry terminal

Container port

Harbor tug

The port was busy.  APL is "American Presidents Lines".  They invented "double stacking" of containers on trains in the US.  This part of the business is currently called "Pacer Stacktrain"  (Next time you're stuck at a RR Xing, look for their blue boxes)

Happy Harbor cruisers

Restored lighthouse

Rangitoto volcanic island - formed "only" 600 years ago.

The Spirit of New Zealand sitting in the harbor.

Returning just in time for another shower

After that, we headed over to Devonport on the ferry for a quick look around and then lunch by a fireplace, overlooking the harbor.

The view from North Head

WWI era retractable gun

Devonport lunch stop

We ended the day with sunset cocktails at the top of the Skycity tower.

Our Airbnb (six floor building smack in the middle) 
View from Airbnb

Cocktail hour

Standing on the glass floor!

Walking home from Skytower.

Time to pack and head for home.  It's a long way home!

Surviving the LAX layover.

Some random thoughts from the trip

The international dateline screws you up!

On the way out:

What happened to Wednesday?  We left on Tuesday. Flew for a bit.  Watched some movies.  Ate some meals and now it's Thursday morning?  Who stole Wednesday?

On the way back:

Get up in the morning, go to airport.  Fly and watch and eat. Change planes.  Fly a bit more.  Get home that evening.  But, it feels like you pulled an "all nighter".

Australian coins are a hot mess:

The two dollar coin is half the size of the one dollar coin.   The 20 cent piece is huge.  The 50 cent piece is gigantic! A small amount of change in you pocket is like carrying around an anvil.

NZ coins are the world's best:

All prices rounded off to nearest 10 cents.  10 cent piece is copper and the smallest.  There is a silver 20 cent and 50 cent piece, each larger than the other.  The 50 cent piece is about the same size as a US quarter.  The dollar and two dollar pieces are thicker than the cent pieces and appropriately scaled.  Five coins.  Easy to carry and discern.  No needless pennies or nickels.

The Euro coins are generally good, as are Canadian coins, although, along with the US, they penny should be dropped.  Probably the nickel, too.  The US needs to drop paper dollar bills and use dollar coins.  US bills are way too thick compared to paper currency in NZ and Australia.  Everyone's bills are better than US money.

What defines a travel day?  File under "Stupid things we discuss everyday."  (well Dan and me...)

If you are on a plane all day.  That's a travel day.  But what if you are only for half a day?  Does it depend on what you did for the rest of the day?  What if you are on a train?  If you are seeing sights along the way, is that sightseeing or travel?  My definition:  If it involves a train or a boat, then NOT a travel day, otherwise, it depends.  ...and on and on and on...

Baseball in the morning is good.

Evening baseball in the US occurs in the morning in Australia and NZ, so Dan and I got our Phillies fix out of the way early and were less distracted the rest of the day.  I think I like it that way.

Ingenious boxes

Marine shipping containers rule goods transportation on land and seas these days.  They can build them for such a low price that they become surplus after only a few years in service.  They wind up in all kinds of secondary service.  You see them lots of places used for sheds and material storage, and there have been some attempts to convert them to low-cost third world housing, but we say some really ingenious ways we saw them used:
Sideway protection for construction zone - Auckland
Temporary storefronts in Christchurch

Anzac Cookies

Originally baked during shortages in WWI, these cookies are a NZ stable.  All the ones I tried were a bit different, but all pretty tasty.

Hokey Pokey ice cream

A NZ staple.  Vanilla with honeycomb toffee chunks.  It's nice.  We don't need to go back for more...

Star Trek doors

Sliding, edgeless glass panel doors are everywhere in NZ and Australia.   Felt like being on a Star Trek set.  All they needed was the "schweezzz" sound effect.


I'm always looking at and listening for birds.  I'm not a hard core birder, but I do pay attention when I travel.  Australia was like an exploded pet shop.  Parrots of all sizes and colors everywhere.  Terrible squawking, though.  NZ was completely different.  Not colorful, but super interesting sounds.  One sounded like R2D2 from Star Wars.  The grey warbler sounded like a mockingbird on steroids.

Useful sayings

"Good on ya, mate!"  means roughly "way to go!"
"What's on"  means roughly "what's happening"
"Lovely" means roughly "that's good" or "all set"
"Kia ora"  Maori for "Hi!" or "Good day!"

Beverages, of the adult kind

Speights and Monteith beer may be owned by the big brewing companies, but all their varieties stand head and shoulders above Budweiser, Miller and Coors.  They need to bring them here!  NZ white wines are a really nice.  The Marlborough region Sauvignon Blancs will be hunted in the local beverage stores.

Things we need to go back for!

Four weeks is a long time, but we missed a lot.  On the list:


Alice Springs and Ayers Rock
Brisbane/Gold Coast

New Zealand

Stewart Island
Doubtful Sound
East coast of South Island NZ - Christchurch to Picton
Westport and Nelson
White Island
90 mile beach
Tongariro National Park