Praise pours in for late railroading legend Harrison

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With the news over the weekend that E. Hunter Harrison, president and chief executive officer of Class I railroad CSX passed away on Saturday December 16 at the age of 73, there was no shortage of praise for a man, whom was widely viewed as the most important railroader of our times. And the praise is likely to continue for more than a while, too, and for good reason.

Harrison spent more than 50 years in the railroad business, and his resume reads like something akin to the “back of the baseball card” for a Hall of Famer. Looking at coverage of his passing over the weekend, he ostensibly worked nearly everywhere and with everyone, over his more than five decades on the tracks.

Here is a quick recap of his career, as outlined in The Wall Street Journal: he “began his railroad career while still in college in 1963 as a 19-year-old laborer squirting oil under train carriages for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway. He then moved to Burlington Northern Railroad, reaching the position of vice president of transportation and service design. In 1989, he joined Illinois Central Railroad and was appointed chief executive in 1993. Mr. Harrison was named chief operating officer of Canadian National Railway after it acquired Illinois Central in 1998. He became CEO in 2003. [H]e was appointed Canadian Pacific’s CEO in 2012.” And this past March, he took the helm at CSX, where he remained until his death.

Harrison was known for doing things his way, and that was apparent through his practice of precision scheduled railroading (PSR), which requires cargo to be ready when rail cars arrive for loading or risk being left behind, a practice that served both CP and CN well under his leadership, with both companies seeing multiple positive results in the form of lower operating ratios, improved service, record amounts of reinvestment into networks, as well as creating significant shareholder value.

He was in the process of incorporating PSR at CSX this year. There were some initial bumps in the road to be sure, but in recent weeks CSX reported gains in key service metrics like train velocity and dwell time, although it is far from a finished product at this point.

Feedback from the rail sector regarding Harrison’s passing each had a common theme in recognizing a true railroading legend.

“It is, of course, an understatement to say he was a ‘giant of the industry,’” wrote Tony Hatch, president of New York-based ABH Consulting. I always used to say he was a ‘two-time Hall-of-Famer’ – likely on his way to a “three-peat.’  I have known him since 1990 and he was always a straight-shooter, and well tolerated dissenting views (for instance, ours on the value of consolidation). He was endlessly fascinating, endlessly controversial – and never, ever boring.  I liked him a lot.”

And Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads offered up the following in a statement: “I am deeply saddened by Hunter Harrison’s passing and offer my sympathies to all who knew, loved and admired him. He was an icon who left an indelible mark on North American railroading. On behalf of the entire rail industry, I would like to extend the sincerest condolences to Hunter’s family during this difficult time.”

CP CEO Keith Creel, whom was considered Harrison’s protégé, explained how he lost a friend and a mentor, having worked closely with Harrison for 25 years

“Over that time, he taught me how to railroad but more than that, he taught me how to be a leader,” Creel stated. “Professionally, Hunter was unmatched in this industry. He will go down as the best railroader ever, plain and simple. What he has done at multiple railroads and for our industry the last 50-plus years is incredible which includes bringing CP back to its rightful place among leaders in the Class 1 space in what some have called the greatest corporate turnaround in history. His legacy will be felt at our company forever, not only by shareholders, but by employees and customers who have all benefited from his leadership, foresight and tenacity. The foundation he built at CP, and at all the other railroads he led, serves us, and the industry, well for the future. 

While Hunter will be remembered in history books as the best railroader there was, I will remember him first as a friend with a loving and giving heart then as a tremendous, visionary leader who always challenged the status quo. His greatest legacy is not the railroads he changed for the better, but the family and friends he left behind that are all blessed to have known and loved him. We grieve with them in the tremendous loss of a one-of-a-kind railroader and even better person, Mr. E. Hunter Harrison.”

Creel added that CP will honor Mr. Harrison by lowering flags to half-mast across its network.

As Harrison continues to be remembered, his career will certainly be remembered as incredibly successful, and, in many ways (multi) generational, too. People like him, with a combination of high industry acumen, leadership, and commitment to what he felt needed to be done in order to be successful, don’t come around every day. While he may be gone, his presence will remain and loom large and influential at the railroads he led and for the railroad industry as well.  

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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