A noisy yellow machine laying down railroad track near Alva, Oklahoma -- as much as a mile a day of concrete and steel -- is Warren Buffett’s solution to the industry’s dwindling coal traffic.

After this year,  BNSF Railway Co. will be more than 99 percent finished with a second, parallel line to its 2,200-mile (3,500-kilometer) Los Angeles-to-Chicago route. Doubling up will create a rail superhighway speeding deliveries of toys, electronics, autos and other goods, because trains won’t have to yield to each other on sidings as they do on single tracks.

The goal: help the unit of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. grab cargo now going by road.

“If the rails can improve the reliability of the transit time,” shipping consultant Satish Jindel said, “it helps them compete with the trucks.”

Snatching consumer products and other freight from big rigs is more crucial than ever. Coal, once a pillar of U.S. rail traffic, is fading as utilities burn cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Average weekly carloads are down 20 percent from five years earlier, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Viable Option

The Los Angeles-to-Chicago route links the busiest U.S. container port to the biggest mid-continent rail hub, giving BNSF a leg up in the race to find alternatives to those dwindling coal cars. And there’s room to grow: consultant FTR Transportation Intelligence estimates that trains now move only about 19 percent of the 71 million trailer loads that travel 550 miles or more, a rough threshold for where rail becomes an viable option.

“We have significant opportunities to convert” truck cargo to rail, said Katie Farmer, chief of BNSF’s consumer group. “We’ve really narrowed the gap now between what was traditionally rail service and over-the-road trucking.”

That’s where the dual tracks come in. More and longer trains can be run on two tracks than on a single line. Once the double-tracked section in Oklahoma is completed at the end of October, BNSF will have just seven more miles of line to build - - involving three costly bridges -- and will be able to run 78 trains a day in that region, up from 62 now.

Faster Speeds

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