Trains Top 10 stories for 2017: No. 1, HUNTER

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Late CSX Transportation CEO E. Hunter Harrison gestures during a Surface Transportation Board meeting in October in Washington, D.C., as CSX Chief Operating Officer Cindy Sanborn listens. Sanborn was one of three long-time top executives ousted at the railroad this year after Harrison took over.
R.G. Edmonson
WAUKESHA, Wis. — At least one Trains editor among the five of us thought E. Hunter Harrison should not be the No. 1 story for 2017. That was before Harrison died on Dec. 16 at age 73.

So rather than merely assessing Harrison on the merits and deeds of this year — taking over CSX Transportation in a bid backed by activist investor Paul Hilal — Harrison forced us editors to attempt to reconcile and weigh his entire career in context, not just his most recent year at work. So, of course, he is, one last time, the top story of the year for us.

Harrison was controversial. His words and his methods were divisive. On conference calls, the railroad executive of five decades offered dew drops of wisdom in his smoked-gravel of a Southern-accented voice:

“I want to be very delicate here, and that’s not my strong suit," Harrison said as Canadian Pacific's CEO, while explaining to investors in 2015 why he stopped pursuing a merger with CSX Transportation to instead chase Norfolk Southern.

Harrison quickly followed up on that call with investors by talking about the Surface Transportation Board reviewing any merger's public interest: “What the hell is public interest? Get that defined for me. … What’s in one public’s interest and not another public’s interest. That’s just a way, in my view, of kind of removing the rules and let the bureaucrats deal with it.”

Bill Ackman, another activist investor who employed Harrison to take over CP in 2012 called the executive, "the greatest railroader of all time."

Fred Frailey disagrees with that statement.

The venerable Trains columnist reminds us that railroading is more than running trains (even though that is a big part of the job too many people get wrong.) And for Harrison, statements about the public interest are an indication of how little he regarded other people's opinions about railroading. And that may have been part of what led him to move so quickly and furiously to change CSX once he took the reins in March. He slashed thousands of jobs at the railroad's Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters and systemwide. Dare we speculate: Harrison's "my way or the highway" attitude may have contributed to what he deemed "employee resistance" to change at the eastern railroad.

Oh, the stories we long to hear about what happened this year behind closed doors — to install Harrison at the railroad, about his reimbursement from CSX shareholders for departing early from CP, and how he called up yardmasters on a whim to give personal instructions on railroading. Sheesh.

Of the many things you can write or say about E. Hunter Harrison, one is certain: There will never be another person like him running a railroad anywhere ever again.

Our lives are less interesting for that fact.

See all of this year's and previous years' Top Ten stories online.
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