Rail stocks are a hot investment right now: Analyst

Rail car stocks to watch

Railroad car companies are having a banner year, and are a hot investment right now, according to Sterne Agee transportation analyst Sal Vitale.

Greenbrier is up 126 percent year to date, while Trinity Industries is up 80 percent so far this year. Freightcar America has had a 16 percent jump year to date.

All three are Vitale's top picks in the sector. He believes they can still power higher thanks to strong fundamentals.

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"You basically have very strong rail car volume," Vitale said Thursday on CNBC's "Street Signs."

Rail car traffic is up about 5 percent across the board for the year among all different commodities, and petroleum car loadings are up more than 20 percent, he added.

There is also a low volume of spare rail cars in storage, and rail car productivity is challenged.

"It takes more rail cars to move a given quantity of goods," he said.

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On top of that, Vitale thinks Street estimates are light for both Greenbrier and Trinity.

Vitale has a "buy" rating on all three names—with a price target of $35 for Freightcar America, a $75 price target for Greenbrier and $52 for Trinity. He does not cover American Railcar, which has jumped 78 percent year to date.

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However, one of the drivers of the rail car sector's success is the shale boom, and if that goes bust "these stocks will react poorly," Vitale said.

—By CNBC's Michelle Fox. CNBC's Shartia Brantley contributed to this report.

Disclosure: RAIL, GBX and TRN are investment banking clients of Sterne Agee