You have to fly from the West to the East Coast. You can either choose to have a layover at Chicago's O'Hare for five hours, or fly non-stop. What's your choice? Except for a couple of die-hard Cubs fans, I can't imagine the former being more popular.

Now, substitute trains for planes, and goods for passengers -- and go through the same thought experiment. Though many airlines might offer direct travel between the coasts, only one railroad sports that designation: Canadian National Railway (NYSE: CNI).

We know that efficiency = high demand + low operating costs.

First, let's examine the chart below.


Miles of Track

Access to:

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP)


Pacific and Gulf of Mexico

Burlington Northern Santa Fe


Pacific and Gulf of Mexico



Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC)


Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico

Canadian National


Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico

If I were to include only the first two columns, Canadian National looks to have a major disadvantage. The company owns more than one-third fewer miles of tracks than its largest competitors.

However, the final column changes the whole story; it shows Canadian National's unique strength: direct access to both coasts, as well as the Gulf of Mexico.

All of a sudden, having fewer miles of tracks becomes an advantage: fewer tracks lead to lower costs for track maintenance and fewer workers to pay. While the average employee at a mammoth like Union Pacific earns the company $54,310 in profit per year, their counterparts at sleeker Canadian National bring in nearly $92,650 over the same time frame.

This advantage also helps to explain the company's industry-leading profit margin. While the average railroad keeps 19 cents for every dollar of revenue, Canadian National keeps a whopping 35 cents.

A gateway for trade
No one wants their products sitting in a rail yard waiting to be unloaded and reloaded by different rail companies. In our global and ever-shrinking world, the ability to efficiently move goods from producer to consumer has the utmost utility. Whether it's transporting Chinese goods to the East Coast, or connecting European automakers with the West Coast, Canadian National Railway is the only ride that goes from sea to shining sea.

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Fool contributor Brian Stoffel grew up with a train track in his backyard and has always been fascinated by them. He owns shares of Canadian National Railway. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. The Fool has a disclosure policy.