ANOTHER REMINDER OF RAILROAD IRRELEVANCE

ANOTHER REMINDER OF RAILROAD IRRELEVANCE

As if America's railroads need another reminder that they are not dot-com companies, the prestigious financial magazine Institutional Investor is considering dropping the separate category for railroad securities analysts when it picks its 2000 ''All-Star Team.''

Henceforth, II, as it is known on Wall Street, would lump railroads, freight forwarders and trucking companies together in a category called ''freight.''In part, that the magazine would even consider such a decision reflects the reduction in the number of railroad companies analysts have to follow. In part, it reflects the smaller number of analysts following the railroads. After all, it wouldn't do to name all-stars in security analysis and have everyone make the team.

The proposed Institutional Investor change is the latest evidence that most of the world doesn't consider the railroad industry to be as significant as it once was.

For example, there were no railroads included on a Dow-Jones advance list of companies that were scheduled to release first-quarter earnings reports last week. By the way, Canadian National, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX, Kansas City Southern and Norfolk Southern all reported first-quarter results last week.

Railroad stock prices have languished for more than a year. In fact, they've done worse than that. On average, rail stocks are selling at a discount to the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index that is as great as when the railroads were recovering from the evils of heavy-handed government regulation.

In 1999, rails stocks declined 17.3 percent while the S&P was up 19.5 percent. In the first quarter this year, the market treated railroads almost as badly: Rails were down 10.1 percent, while the S&P gained 3.7 percent.

The stock market is driven by institutional money - mutual funds, pension funds, trusts and other professionally managed pots of money. The people who manage money are not impressed by the sight of long freight trains being pulled by powerful locomotives. They are swayed by return on capital. And railroads have lagged the market in that respect.

Earnings suffered as the industry grappled with merger-related problems for the last three years. Before that, it was the great Midwest flood of 1993 that clobbered rail earnings. The unemotional people who channel investment money decided simply to look elsewhere for places to place their clients' funds.

Actually, the floods and the service problems that followed mergers masked a much more serious problem. Not only are railroads not dot-com companies, they aren't even keeping up with the economy.

The railroad industry likes to measure its output in ton-miles (one ton of freight moved one mile.) By that measurement, railroads set traffic records in every one of the last 13 years except 1997 when the Union Pacific service crisis affected the entire industry's ability to handle the business that was available.

The grim reality, however, is that railroads continue to lose market share on the higher-revenue traffic that they need to carry if they are to be considered a growth industry. The picture isn't nearly as pleasant when you back out lower revenue coal and intermodal from rail data.

Coal, traditionally a short-haul commodity, is moving ever longer distances as utilities throughout the country act to satisfy clean-air requirements by taking increasing amounts of low-sulfur coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. The increasing tonnage moved farther multiplies ton-miles exponentially.

Intermodal is being driven by the globalization of trade, with huge numbers of containers moving across the country in trainload volume. It's low-revenue business but it piles up the ton-miles.

If they are to be considered a growth industry, railroads need to define a strategy that works. They have to balance capacity and growth and stop behaving as though they have excess capacity they must fill with all the business they can find.

Canadian National appears to have the strategy. CN has a simpler network than do other major carriers, but in its drive to provide customers with superior service by becoming a scheduled railroad it is not trying to be all things to all people.

CN is operating a pipeline of services. Trains are dispatched on time. Customers that miss a cut-off will have their freight on the next train. Initially, this annoyed some customers, but they soon realized that they were the beneficiaries of a more reliable freight transportation system.

A FEW WEEKS AGO IN THIS COLUMN, I suggested that railroad stock prices had fallen so low that a computer billionaire rail fan could afford to buy the real thing.

Well, last week in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Bill Gates, the biggest computer billionaire of all, revealed that he had purchased 7 percent of Wisconsin Central Transportation Corp. for $52.4 million.

Gates may think it's a good time to buy depressed railroad stocks - or maybe he wants to be the biggest rail fan of all.