Feds help Atlanta company nab $10 million deal

An Atlanta rail service and switch engine manufacturer has sold six of its locomotives overseas for the first time with financing from a federal agency that arranges such help.

Railserve, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, said it shipped six of its locomotives to a state-owned railroad in Gabon, Africa, late last year in a roughly $10 million deal.

The Export-Import Bank said this week that it guaranteed a $10 million loan that helped Railserve beat a Chinese competitor for the deal.

The federal agency aims to support U.S. jobs by helping finance overseas buyers of U.S. products. But it has often run into controversy from both liberals and conservatives, who either view it as a purveyor of corporate welfare or a government agency that picks winners and losers.

Late last year President Barack Obama signed legislation to revive the agency after Congress let it expire.

“They really were essential because it was a very complicated deal,” Railserve President Tim Benjamin said of EXIM Bank’s help.

Railserve has a small 30-employee headquarters just south of the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in metro Atlanta. The bulk of the company’s 1,100 employees operate locomotives called switch engines to move railcars around at utility companies’ and big manufacturers’ operations.

But Railserve also makes switch engines for its own use or to sell. The units, which are built in Railserve’s factory in Longview, Texas, are smaller than long-haul locomotives, but still weigh about 220,000 pounds.

The Africa deal helped fill a months-long gap in production, said Benjamin, preserving jobs at its 33-employee plant, which builds about one locomotive a month.

But the deal also has spurred Railserve, which had never before sold its equipment outside North America, to seek more business overseas, said Benjamin.

“We really do think there is a market in Africa specifically,” he said, partly because there are no local producers of similar equipment, and many of the continent’s tracks have the same rail gauge as U.S. railroads.

The company is headed to the African Rail Show in Johannesburg, South Africa, later this month, he said.

“We’re going to arrange quite a few meetings,” he said.