A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train sits idle at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif.
A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train sits idle at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Warren Buffett's holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns a whole lot of things. It owns insurance companies and an ice-cream maker. It owns an underwear manufacturer and a brick company. Pretty soon it's going to own the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, too. Buffet says he's making a $34 billion bet on the economic future of the country. The guy's right up among the most successful investors ever. This is the biggest investment he's ever made. But what's he really betting on? We asked Marketplace's Alisa Roth to find out.

ALISA ROTH: Burlington Northern makes more money than any other rail company in the country. It has 32,000 miles of track that run through 28 states and two Canadian provinces. It plays a key role in the economy: it transports everything from consumer goods to corn.

Lee Klaskow is a transportation analyst at Longbow, a research firm. He says Warren Buffett is figuring that where the economy goes, the trains will follow.

LEE KLASKOW: What he's betting on is that given that the rail industry and transportation companies in general are imperative to the movement of goods that when the economy does begin to pick up steam again, these companies will benefit.

Buffett seems to like playing with trains: he already owned about a quarter of Burlington Northern. And he owns stock in two other big players: Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern.

One of Burlington Northern's most profitable businesses is carting coal.

Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, it's a non-profit environmental group. He says Buffett's acquisition is a sign he doesn't think the government's going to do much on global warming.

FRANK O'DONNELL: Well, this is very ominous from the standpoint of climate change. Warren Buffett is no dummy, and he seems to be making a multi-billion dollar bet that coal use is not only going to continue but grow in the future.

He says Buffett's in this to make money, not to change policy. But people follow Buffett. And deals like this one could make it hard to convince Americans we need to.

I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.