Monthly Archives: April 2015

Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Adds Australia to Growing List of Countries

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Australia is the latest country for Berkshire Hathaway’s Boston-based Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company (BHSI). The company received its insurance license to provide all lines of General Business in Australia, and established operations in Sydney.

Wasting no time, BHSI has already started providing property, casualty, financial lines and marine cargo insurance in Australia.

Chris Colahan was named President of BHSI’s Australasia Region, and four executives from American International Group are also on board.

“BHSI is committed to expanding into geographic markets and lines of business where we can provide financially strong, highly responsive underwriting solutions and market leading service. Our move into Australia reflects this strategy. Under Chris’s leadership, we’ve already built a stellar underwriting, claims, and functional team to serve the needs of the Australian market,” said Peter Eastwood, President of BHSI.

Chris Colahan joins BHSI from RSA Insurance Group, where he was most recently Chief Executive Officer, Asia, and before that, Chief Executive Officer, Hong Kong. He was also previously Country Manager, Singapore Retail, and Regional Manager, Strategy and Change, Asia and the Middle East, at RSA. He began his career in Australia at Westpac Banking Corporation.

In addition to its Australian platform, BHSI has established operations in the United States, Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong. The company is pursuing its insurance license in New Zealand.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

BNSF Adds Ethanol Trains to Parade of Oil Trains

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BNSF Railway’s oil trains have been in the news almost every day these past few years, as they move oil from the Bakken formation to refineries both east and west. Now, BNSF is adding ethanol trains to the mix.

Aventine Renewable Energy Inc., a leading producer, marketer and supplier of ethanol, has started using BNSF’s100-car unit trains to ship ethanol to its facilities.

Dedicated unit trains move single-bulk commodities such as coal, grain, minerals, liquids, special project cargo and oversized commodities non-stop between a single origin and destination.

Aventine announced its first BNSF unit-train shipment of ethanol produced at its two ethanol facilities in Aurora, Nebraska, pulled out of Aurora on April 19, heading to Birmingham, Alabama. The ethanol will be blended in gasoline to enhance octane, and will also help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

“It’s a major milestone in executing unit trains out of Aurora, eliminating obsolete single-car switching and moving Aventine assets into the highly efficient unit-train supply chain mode,” said Mark Beemer, Aventine’s president and CEO.

“Through a solid partnership with the BNSF, Aventine now has direct access from the BNSF mainline to our inner-loop unit-train track, using a newly installed mainline switch, track and a rail crossover built on Aventine’s land,” Beemer stated. “With our ability to produce 155-million gallons of ethanol, additional economics will be driven by quicker and more efficient moves of ethanol trains into large unit-train consumptive end markets.”

Two years ago, Beemer and the Aventine management team devised a strategic plan to logistically derisk the facility from adverse local conditions. Tactics deployed beyond the rail upgrades include installing four new truck scales, two new grain-grading labs and additional corn storage.

With unit-train capacity, Beemer noted, “Aventine is excited about opening new 100-car unit train markets.” In addition to Birmingham these include Watson, California; Chicago and East St. Louis, Illinois; and Dallas, Houston, Deer Park, Fort Worth, Beaumont and Texas City, Texas.

In Aurora Aventine operates the Aurora West 110-million-gallon Delta T facility and the Nebraska Energy LLC Vogelbusch 45-million-gallon dry mill plant. “By restarting both plants and making $20 million in efficiency upgrades, Aventine has been able to create local jobs in Aurora and contribute to the Nebraska economy while also providing local Aurora farmers with higher values for their corn and supplying local cattle feeders with competitively priced dried and wet distillers grain,” Beemer added. The company has hired 83 employees to date for an annualized payroll of $5.4 million.

In Pekin, Illinois, the company’s headquarters, Aventine operates two plants: a 60-million-gallon dry mill and a 100-million-gallon wet mill.

For more on BNSF, read a Special Report on BNSF’s little-known passenger service.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

BH Media Group Picks Up Oklahoma Publications

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BH Media Group has added six Oklahoma weekly community newspapers, and one Tulsa-based business daily, to its growing print media empire.

The acquisitions come only three weeks after it acquired the Franklin News-Post, which covers Rocky Mount, Virginia, and the Martinsville Bulletin, which covers Martinsville, Virginia.

The Tulsa Business & Legal News, Broken Arrow Ledger, Sand Springs Leader, Coweta American, Wagoner Tribune, Owasso Reporter, and the Skiatook Journal were all acquired from Community Newspaper Holdings of Montgomery Alabama.

Each of the newspapers has a website in addition to its print version.

The seven newspapers purchased by BH Media give it a greater reach in the Oklahoma market, which already includes its ownership of the Tulsa World, the second highest circulation paper in the state after The Oklahoman.

The Tulsa Business & Legal News is a daily paper that focuses on business news, happenings and profiles in Green County. It publishes a print and digital version and runs the website TulsaBusiness.com. According to the paper, 79% of its readers have an income of over $100,000.

The six weekly’s circulations are all small, with the largest being the Broken Arrow Ledger at 22,500. The others are the Sand Springs Leader (circulation 4,500), Coweta American (circulation 3,000), Wagoner Tribune (circulation 4,000), Owasso Reporter (circulation 5,100), and the Skiatook Journal (circulation 2,800).

A Focus on Community News

BH Media Group focuses on community newspapers, which report on local government, police and fire calls, high school news and sports, community events, and operate in a different niche than major market newspapers.

BH Media Group currently has a portfolio of 73 newspapers and other titles located in 10 states, including Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. They also operate WPLG-TV, an ABC affiliate in Miami, FL.

BH Media Group does not have a national news gathering operation. It uses wire service for national news, but does cover regional news and state governments, sharing that information across its newspapers.

To read a Special Report on BH Media Group’s revenues and acquisition strategies see BH Media Finds Multiples Success.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Dairy Queen Heads to Europe with Poland Deal

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Berkshire’s Dairy Queen currently has over 6,400 Dairy Queen stores in the United States, Canada and 26 other countries, but it doesn’t have any in Europe.

Zero, zip, nada.

That’s about to end as the Dairy Queen® system has inked a deal for its first locations in Poland.

Why Poland?

“Poland is a country with a robust and stable economy while still having strong growth potential for international brands. In searching for a new opportunity, we were looking for a solid partner who was ready to enter the Polish market,” said Wojciech Siwiec, General Manager of Sparrow 4 Sp. Z.O.O. “We are excited to partner with the Dairy Queen system, whose significant experience and know-how provides a strong foundation for success. We are looking forward to a good collaboration in launching the DQ brand in Poland.”

The initial DQ Grill & Chill and DQ Treat locations in Poland will open in the spring of 2015 in the greater Warsaw metro region.

Expansion Into Eastern Europe

“Our strategy is to open franchises in emerging markets,” Dairy Queen’s president and CEO John Gainor says. “That’s why Poland is a logical choice. We are avoiding countries such as France where the competition is very well established.”

Poland is just the beginning, according Dairy Queen’s Jean Champagne, Chief Operations Officer — International Groups.

“This move is strategic. We are entering the Eastern European market at a time when Western brands are being embraced by a consumer base that is well informed on the importance of global brands,” Champagne said. “We look forward to working with a strong franchise partner in Poland. We see this as a launching pad for other contiguous countries in the region.”

DQ’s International Expansion

While Dairy Queen continues to grow in the U.S., with stores in Manhattan and surrounding boroughs opening last year, the international business has been particularly robust, with 1,426 locations, and over 600 stores in China alone.

Middle East expansion have been particularly aggressive, with Saudi Arabia on track to open 32 locations by 2015 through franchisee Al Safwa Food Group. The largest DQ Grill & Chill restaurant in the world is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Kuwait locations are owned by Khaled For Foodstuffs Co., a subsidiary of KMGC, and UAE locations are owned by U.S.-based International franchise company Bajco Group.

Dairy Queen doesn’t want to do its international expansion piece meal, and is looking for franchisees with the strength to take on whole countries.

For more information read a Mazor’sEdge special report on Dairy Queen.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Special Report: Passenger Service Little Known Part of BNSF

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With the founding of Amtrak in 1971, most people have assumed that the major class 1 railroads, which include Berkshire Hathaway’s wholly-owned BNSF, got out of the passenger rail business.

The exodus was logical, as post WWII passenger service had become a tremendous money drain with the advent of jet air travel and the building of the interstate highway system. That one-two punch sent ridership plunging.

But Not So Fast

While it is true that long distance passenger rail service is now the purview of Amtrak, BNSF still moves over 27 million passengers a year in regional passenger rail service that includes Chicago, Seattle, and Minneapolis. Chicago alone has more than 25 million passengers annually served by 106 BNSF trains.

BNSF’s role in each region is different. For example, in Minneapolis, BNSF provides the locomotives, and the Metropolitan Council, the regional governmental agency, owns the rolling stock and provides train crews.

In Chicago, BNSF operates the trains and leases the equipment under a purchase of service agreement to METRA, the commuter rail division of the Regional Transportation Authority of the Chicago metropolitan area.

In Seattle, Sounder commuter rail is operated by BNSF on behalf of Sound Transit.

In all these cities, commuter rail helps reduce congestion on local highways. A single bi-level commuter rail car can carry as many passengers as 120 automobiles, and a train produces less emissions than an equivalent number of automobiles.

Ensuring a Profitable Business Model

What all the commuter lines have in common is they are all profitable for BNSF. Commuter rail is still just a small part of BNSF’s overall business, but BNSF has laid out a list of Commuter Rail Principles that keep it profitably in the commuter rail business:

• Any commuter operation cannot degrade BNSF’s freight service, or negatively affect BNSF’s freight customers or BNSF’s ability to provide them with service.

• BNSF must be compensated for any and all costs incurred in providing commuter service and must make a reasonable return for providing the service.

• Capital investments necessary for commuter service are the responsibility of the public, including investments for future capacity.

• BNSF will not incur any liability for commuter operations that it would not have but for those operations. These operations are provided by BNSF primarily as a public service.

• Studies of how commuter service might be provided must take into account not only the current freight traffic levels, but also projected freight traffic growth.

•Investments made for commuter projects must not result in BNSF incurring a higher tax burden.

• BNSF must retain operating control of rail facilities used for commuter service. All dispatching, maintenance and construction must be done under the control of BNSF.

• Studies must reflect BNSF’s actual operating conditions and cost structures.

• BNSF will limit commuter operations to the commuter schedules initially agreed upon. Future expansions will have to undergo the same analysis and provide any required capital improvements.

•Improvements must include grade-crossing protection and intertrack fencing as required to minimize the risk of accidents.

Commuter rail is not BNSF’s only connection to passenger service. In addition to the passenger service provided directly by BNSF, some 64 Amtrak trains operate daily on over 6,500 miles of BNSF host track.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Jordan Latest Country in Dairy Queen’s Middle East Expansion

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There will soon be a Blizzard in Jordan. The country is the latest addition to Dairy Queen’s Middle East expansion that already includes locations in Bahrain, Brunei, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

SKM Franchise Co. LTD will launch a minimum of 10 DQ locations within the first five years of its recently signed long-term agreement.

The company’s first of five DQ Grill & Chill restaurants will open in late 2015.

The Nafal brothers, who lead SKM Franchise Co. LTD, have more than 20 years of retail development experience. In 2005, they opened El Rancho Supermercado, which grew into a chain of 16 supermarkets in Texas, with 6 stores in Dallas. They also own La Bodega, a food distribution company.

“We are very excited and enthusiastic about introducing the DQ brand to Jordan,” said Mario Nafal. “It’s a powerful global brand with a strong heritage. Jordanians will soon become part of the legion of fans the DQ system has around the world. We look forward to this tremendous opportunity.”

DQ’s International Expansion

Berkshire Hathaway’s Dairy Queen® system currently has 6,400 Dairy Queen stores in the United States, Canada and 26 other countries. The international business has been particularly robust, with 1,426 locations, including over 600 stores in China alone.

Middle East expansion have been particularly aggressive, with Saudi Arabia on track to open 32 locations by 2015 through franchisee Al Safwa Food Group. The largest DQ Grill & Chill restaurant in the world is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Kuwait locations are owned by Khaled For Foodstuffs Co., a subsidiary of KMGC, and UAE locations are owned by U.S.-based International franchise company Bajco Group.

Dairy Queen doesn’t want to do its international expansion piece meal, and is looking for franchisees with the strength to take on whole countries.

For more on Dairy Queen, read a Mazor’sEdge special report on Dairy Queen.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Topaz Solar Farm Shines as One of World’s Largest

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Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, California, is now one of the largest photovoltaic solar farms in the world.

The plant went substantially on line in 2014, providing power to Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s customers in California under a long term power purchase agreement.

The 550 megawatt solar plant was built by First Solar for Berkshire subsidiary BHE Renewables, and produces enough power to supply the needs of 181,000 average-sized California homes. BHE Renewables completed the acquisition of Topaz Solar Farms from First Solar in January 2012.

Worldwide, First Solar has built over 10 gigawatts of installed solar power to date.

Topaz Solar Farm uses 8.4 million First Solar advanced thin-film photovoltaic modules that generate electricity without emissions, waste or water use. First Solar claims the technology has the smallest carbon footprint of any photovoltaic technology.

A host of Environmental Benefits

The solar plant was built on previously disturbed agricultural land, and provides additional environmental benefits as well as clean power.

“Topaz functions as a productive grassland habitat for native plants and animals — some of which are endangered and protected — while being used for passive farming of the sun’s energy,” said Bill Fehrman, president of BHE Renewables.

According to the company, “BHE Renewables provided wildlife mitigation corridors throughout the project and protected more than 17,000 acres of surrounding land as native species habitat.”

California, Land of Renewable Energy

Solar power is playing a big part in California’s ambitious renewable energy plans.

On November 17, 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Executive Order S-14-08 requiring that “retail sellers of electricity shall serve 33 percent of their load with renewable energy by 2020.”

Decreasing Cost of Construction

The cost of producing solar power is declining rapidly. According to PV Magazine, the cost of producing solar power fell 60% in just an 18 month period, and the overall cost of producing solar power in 2013 was 60% cheaper than in 2011.

Low Cost of Operation

According to First Solar, its Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) thin film technology has the lowest energy pricing on a total cost basis.

“Total cost of electricity pricing includes the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) and economic externalities such as environmental impacts. With the smallest carbon footprint, fastest energy payback time, and lowest life cycle water use, CdTe PV has the lowest externalities of all solar and conventional energy technologies, resulting in the lowest energy price on a total cost basis.”

Another of the advantages of photovoltaic power production is its low cost of ongoing operation. BHE Renewables’s comparably sized Solar Star I and 2 projects, in Rosamond, California, only have 15 full-time site positions to run the entire facility.

About BHE Renewables

A subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, BHE Renewables has 3,470 megawatts of renewable energy owned or under construction in 6 states, and runs BHE Solar, BHE Wind, BHE Geothermal, and BHE Hydro. The company also operates and maintains a power plant on the Philippine island of Luzon.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Is Axalta Coating Systems in Berkshire’s Crosshairs?

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Could a former DuPont unit be an acquisition target for Berkshire Hathaway’s Lubrizol Corporation?

Berkshire Hathaway has acquired a minority stake in Axalta Coating Systems (AXTA), a leading global coatings company “dedicated solely to the development, manufacture and sale of liquid and powder coatings.”

In a statement released by Axalta, “an affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (“Berkshire Hathaway”) has entered into a definitive stock purchase agreement with certain affiliates of The Carlyle Group (“Carlyle”) for the purchase of a total of 20 million of Axalta’s common shares for an aggregate purchase price of $560 million, or $28.00 per share. Axalta will not receive proceeds from the sale of the shares. In connection with the purchase, Berkshire Hathaway agreed that it would not dispose of the shares for 90 days following the consummation of the sale. Axalta has agreed to provide Berkshire Hathaway with certain registration rights following the expiration of that 90-day period.”

The $28 share price is substantially below the $31.30 share price that Axalta was trading at after the announcement.

A Leader in Specialty Coatings

Headquartered in Philadelphia, Axalta is a worldwide leader in development and manufacture of specialty coatings.

The company lists the following facts on its website:

• More than 12,000 people who create, manufacture, distribute and support our products and services
• Doing business in 130 countries
• 35 manufacturing plants around the world
• 7 Research & Development centers on four continents
• Over 1,800 patents held or pending
• 45 training centers to support our refinish customers around the globe
• More than 120,000 customers including 4,000 distributors
• 2013 revenues of $4.3 billion

The company was founded in 1866 as Herberts, the original producer of Standox® paint products. Spun off of DuPont Performance Coatings in 2013, it was sold to the Carlyle Group and renamed Axalta Coating Systems. Today the company is a leader in coatings for commercial vehicles.

In Lubrizol’s Crosshairs?

While Berkshire has not formally announced the affiliate that acquired the Axalta stake, it would seem to be good fit for specialty chemicals manufacturer Lubrizol Corporation.

Lubrizol has been on an acquisition spree lately. In December 2013, Lubrizol acquired pipeline chemical maker Phillips 66 from ConocoPhillips. It was rechristened Lubrizol Specialty Products, Inc. In 2014, it acquired Warwick Chemicals, and Engineered Chemistry and Integrity Industries.

The Carlyle Group remains Axalta’s largest shareholder, with 150.3 million shares, and the question has to be whether the Berkshire stake is a prelude to Berkshire’s acquisition of Axalta as a subsidiary of Lubrizol?

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Berkshire Hathaway Automotive Starts Hunt for More Dealerships

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With the completion of Berkshire Hathaway’s $4.1 billion acquisition of the Van Tuyl Group, the largest privately owned auto dealership group in the U.S., the newly rechristened Berkshire Hathaway Automotive has already begun its acquisition of additional auto dealers.

Frank Kent Honda of Fort Worth, Texas, is the first to be purchased by BHA.

The business will be renamed Honda of Fort Worth.

The dealership, which was one of the oldest family-owned dealerships in Texas, features an $18 million new Honda showroom that was built in 2010.

Frank Kent Honda had been owned since 2005 by Will Churchill and Corrie Watson, who are great-grandchildren of dealership founder Frank Kent.

In making its first acquisition, BHA is competing in a red hot market that is quickly consolidating.

Investor George Soros, through his Soros Fund Management, has stated that the he is actively looking to purchase a large auto dealership group.

As for Warren Buffett, this is just a beginning that will surely see Berkshire moving up in market share from its current starting point in fifth place.

“This is the beginning of a journey that will have no end,” Buffett noted upon completion of the acquisition of the Van Tuyl Group. “Cecil and Larry have given us the ideal platform with which to build an auto dealership business that will be thriving and growing 50 and 100 years from now. The fun has just started.”

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire
Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article
is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The
information contained in this article should not be construed as
personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is
no guarantee of future results.

BNSF Sees Benefits From High-Speed Passenger Rail Initiative

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail funds currently being invested to bring higher speed passenger rail service in the Pacific Northwest will also bring benefits to BNSF’s freight hauling capacity.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a 467-mile rail corridor between Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, B.C., is being upgraded in order to bring improved passenger rail service for Amtrak’s Cascades service.

In addition to speeding up passenger service, BNSF, which owns the track in the rail corridor, will benefit from the upgrades as well.

The goal of the upgrades is to provide faster travel times and add two additional passenger trains per day. In addition, the goal is to increase freight rail capacity.

The upgrades include new bypass tracks to add capacity, upgrades to warning signal systems, safety-related improvements, and multiple upgrades to existing track. A new rail bridge will cross the Coweeman River near Kelso, Washington, and there will be upgrades to wayside signal systems components at all control points, sidings and turnouts between the U.S./Canada border and Vancouver, Washington.

The upgrades to the wayside signal systems will allow Positive Train Control components (PTC), which are processor-based/communication-based train control system designed to prevent train accidents. PTC will be part of the next generation of passenger locomotives that will be employed in the Cascade service. PTC is a part of the federally mandated systems BNSF and other Class 1 railroads must deploy by Dec. 31, 2015.

Coal Exports Overseas

The corridor is growing in importance as coal from Wyoming is being shipped overseas. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, freight volume is expected to grow by 60 percent over the next 25 years.

In 2013, Millennium Bulk Terminals submitted an application for a proposed coal export terminal at the site of a former Reynolds Aluminum smelter, in Cowlitz County, Washington. The terminal would ultimately export up to 44 million metric tons of coal annually to China.

Bakken Oil to Refineries

In addition to coal, BNSF runs oil trains from North Dakota’s Bakken formation to refineries in Washington. The trains can run up to 150 tank cars in length.

Currently, passenger service utilizes shared track with freight trains, and a key feature is the creation of sidings that allow freight and passenger trains to pass each other. In addition to creating new sidings, some existing siding tracks will be extended.

The passenger service upgrades will also include station upgrades and eight new locomotives.

The improvements are funded by the federal government in conjunction with Oregon and Washington. In Washington state alone, nearly $800 million in federal high-speed rail funds have been received for the project.

The project is scheduled to be completed by 2017.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.