Time for Innovation in Trains?

Warren Buffet Is Betting His Farm Investing In A 190 Years Old Innovation Platform

Innovation in Trains

by Idris Mootee

I love trains. I remember how happy I was when my Dad bought me the first expensive German made Minitrix train set (I was about 8). I was fascinated for months by different freight and passenger trains and had the catalog under the pillow going bed every night dreaming about them. Whenever I see trains, I think about him even sadly he is not around anymore. It is funny how toys can have so much sentimental value.

Anyone know when the railroad was invented? It depends on how you look at it. The invention of the steam engine was critical to the invention of the modern railroad and trains. In 1803, a man named Samuel Homfray decided to fund the development of a steam-powered vehicle to replace the horse-drawn carts on the tramways (it is a performance-driven innovation).

Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) built that vehicle, the first steam engine tramway locomotive. On February 22, 1804, the locomotive hauled a load of 10 tons of iron, 70 men and five extra wagons the 9 miles between the ironworks at Pen-y-Darron in the town of Merthyr Tydfil (Wales) to the bottom of the valley called Abercynnon. It was a two hours trip and was a slow train. Then in 1821, an Englishman Julius Griffiths first patented a passenger road locomotive – another great British innovation!

Almost 20 decades later Warren Buffett sees the same opportunity and decided to invest heavily in railroad; he is paying US$44 billion for a 19th century innovation the railroad that moves things from one place to another. (I don’t want to bet against him, given his track record, Its stock is up 84% over the past decade, while the S&P 500 is down by 18%). He is smart. Doesn’t matter what innovation coming next, people still need to move goods around in the most energy (and cost) efficient means. At least before some one crack teleporting.

Why the railroad? It is not because of nostalgic reason that the train was one of his favorite childhood toys. I am sure that’s not the reason. It is not toy money. “It’s an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States. I love these bets,” said Beffet “Railroads are among the most energy-efficient modes of mass transportation to date. And also due for a major upgrade”. What is Mr. Buffet betting on? He is betting on three things:

  1. Oil pries will remain high. If oil prices regain its upward momentum, trains will be more productive then trucks in that environment when oil is king, rail is queen. His money can fuel a massive upgrade of the railroad with the most advanced innovative technologies.
  2. US economy will recover and that demand will resumes for transportation. According to Buffet: I basically believe this country will prosper and more people will be moving more goods 10, 20, 30 years from now and the rails will benefit.”
  3. China economic progress will continue at a fast pace. Commodities fuel such as coal powers the economic engine of China (the factory to the world). US coal and goods are shipped via rail to Pacific ports and then shipped to China. Buffet believes China will further integrate with the US economy.

Idris MooteeIdris Mootee is the CEO of idea couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm. He is the author of four books, tens of published articles, and a frequent speaker at business conferences and executive retreats.

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Idris Mootee




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