Shipper group honors Hunter Harrison as its Transportation Person of the Year

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E. Hunter Harrison
Jim McClellan
TARRYTOWN, N.Y. – A shipper group has honored E. Hunter Harrison, the late chief executive of CSX Transportation, for his impact on the railroad last year.

The North East Association of Rail Shippers named Harrison its Transportation Person of the Year on Wednesday, the first day of its annual fall conference.

Scott McCalla, the executive director of NEARS, read his favorite quote from Harrison’s book, “How We Work and Why: Running a Precision Scheduled Railroad,” which was published while he was at the helm of Canadian National. “‘This book is about running the best damn railroad in the business,’” McCalla says. “Isn’t that what it’s about? Isn’t that why we’re here?”

Harrison was no stranger to controversy as he implemented his operating model at CN, Canadian Pacific, and CSX, McCalla noted, adding that some people disagreed with Harrison’s methods.

“It’s up to us to understand and rationalize the legacy of Hunter Harrison….He has had a profound impact on our industry in this past year, and certainly previously, and we choose to honor him graciously, professionally, and with our sincerest appreciation,” McCalla says.

On hand to accept the award was Mark Wallace, who served as Harrison’s chief of staff at all three railroads.

Wallace, who now is CSX’s executive vice president for sales and marketing, noted that many industry observers doubted that Harrison’s operating model would work on a complex Eastern railroad like CSX.

“I can imagine him coming up here, taking this podium, and looking somberly out at all of you and saying, ‘I told you so,’” Wallace says. “Yes, Hunter did tell us – and anybody else who listened. He was passionate about scheduled railroading. And his absolute conviction that it would work at CSX is what carried us through the challenges of 2017 to where we are today.”

The rapid rollout of operational changes at CSX in the summer of 2017 led to service disruptions that prompted shipper complaints and intense scrutiny from federal regulators.

“Hunter told us if we stayed the course we would begin to see dramatic improvements by the end of the year. And we did,” Wallace says. “He told us that we could turn CSX around from having one of the highest operating ratios in the industry to one of the lowest. And we did. He told us we could operate more efficiently than at any time in our company’s history. And we are. And he told us that if we did all these things, our customers would recognize the value of our service by rewarding us with their freight. And you are.”

Shippers at the conference noted the improvement in CSX’s service since last year.

“I know Hunter would consider this award the ultimate validation of scheduled railroading,” Wallace says.

Harrison’s vision for how to run the best railroad wasn’t driven by performance metrics or operating ratio, he adds.

“It was and continues to be a clear-eyed recognition that railroads exist for one reason: to serve customers,” he says. “And if we can’t do that, well, our customers have no reason to give us their business. That commitment to serving customers was perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of Hunter’s scheduled railroading model.”

NEARS President Jason Seidl, who is a transportation analyst at Cowen & Co., said the choice of Harrison as Transportation Person of the Year ultimately was an easy one for the organization’s board. “The only thing that we regret is that we couldn’t have done it when he was alive,” Seidl says.

Harrison died in December 2017 at age 73.

NEARS is one of five regional groups under the umbrella of the North American Rail Shippers Association.
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