Whether in the corporate lunchroom, your cubicle, or the local watering hole after work, there are regular places we gather to discuss news, sports, or -- if you're like us -- stocks. Here at Motley Fool CAPS, we gather around the virtual watercooler daily to rate stocks and delve into their merits as investments.

Our 130,000-strong CAPS community -- where members give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to some 5,300 stocks -- pools that collective scuttlebutt to seek out businesses it thinks will outperform the market. Below we'll take a look at some of the highest-rated, most talked-about stocks in the CAPS universe, and see whether you think they'll continue their winning ways.

Stock

CAPS Rating (5 Stars Max)

No. of Calls

% Outperform Calls

Alcoa (NYSE:AA)

****

2439

93%

American International Group (NYSE:AIG)

**

2400

86%

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (NYSE:BNI)

****

2211

97%

Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW)

****

2162

94%

Markel (NYSE:MKL)

*****

2659

98%

All aboard?
Could railroads be ready to run off the tracks? As economic conditions worsen, erstwhile railroad backstops like fuel surcharges dissipate, and key freight segments decline. It looks like the railways' brakes are starting to screech; at the very least, they're heading for a siding.

Burlington Northern took a legal hit in February, when the Surface Transportation Board ruled that the railroad had overcharged Western Fuels Association and Basin Electric Power Cooperative by tens of millions of dollars. The board held that the power companies were "captive shippers," meaning that they had no alternative but to use Burlington's rails. As a consequence, the board demanded that the railroad reimburse the power companies $100 million, and that it lower rates for them by about 60% for the next 16 years -- a total present value of $345 million.

The railroad industry as a whole has been hit by the recent economic malaise.  According to the American Association of Railroads, the first 10 weeks of 2009 saw U.S. railroads report cumulative carload volumes that were down 15.7% from the year-ago period. Similarly, Union Pacific (NYSE:UNP) recently reported that traffic was down an additional 19% for the first week of March. Worse yet, flooding along the Red River may play havoc with shipments of corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Still, some industry analysts think the economy's already reached its trough. Railfax reports that both baseline and cyclical volumes are trending up when you look at four-week rolling averages.

However, any increase in traffic and sustained profits for Burlington, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern (NYSE:NSC) may be derailed by recently proposed antitrust legislation. The Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act, pending in the Senate, would impede the railroads' rate-setting practices. The bill has a fair chance to be enacted in the current Congress, although a similar bill failed last year.

CAPS rides the rails
The CAPS community remains solidly behind Burlington Northern; 97% of the members who've rated the stock  believe it will outperform the market. IRVINGP sees economic recovery both here and in China as a catalyst for growth:

Recovery spending by the USA and China, and other countries, will drive massive shipments of coal, metallic ore, timber and wood products, etc. on [Burlington] to Pacific Coast seaports and across the USA. This will result in growth, revenue, and profits for [Burlington].

Similarly, CAPS member A6EIntruder thinks the market's underestimated railroads' importance to our overall infrastructure:

Rail stocks are going to get their time in the limelight. As energy costs peak and dip, this is the 'forgotten essential' of the transportation infrastructure puzzle for long- and medium- hauls of goods. Strong EBITD, earnings, great balance and income sheets.

Gather 'round
With so many good opinions about today's top companies, why not grab a pointy paper cup from the dispenser and join us at the Motley Fool CAPS water cooler? Your input can help guide other investors to stocks with bright prospects for growth. In return, you'll get access to great research that can help your own pursuit of great investments. Read a company's financial reports, scrutinize key data and charts, and examine the comments that your fellow investors have made, all from a stock's CAPS page.

Sign up today for the completely free service, and let us hear what you have to say about the great and almost-great companies that interest you.

Markel is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. The Fool owns shares of Markel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.