Former Harrison colleague: 'Hunter's the daddy of precision railroading'

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Hunter Harrison speaks before the Surface Transportation Board in 2017.
R.G. Edmonson
Some of E. Hunter Harrison’s former colleagues are expressing surprise that a railroad financier credits former Illinois Central CEO Ed Moyers with developing the concepts behind Precision Scheduled Railroading.

Last week Gil Lamphere, a former board member at IC, Canadian National, and CSX Transportation, told a shipper conference that credit for creating Precision Scheduled Railroading should go to Moyers.

Lamphere financed the founding of MidSouth, the regional created in 1986 from former IC lines, and three years later led the acquisition of the IC itself. Moyers found success with his operating plan at MidSouth, then brought it to the IC before Harrison was hired to lead operations, Lamphere says.

But several of Harrison’s former colleagues disagree.

While Harrison and Moyers shared similar views, they say Harrison was the driving force behind the scheduled railroading principles that turned a struggling IC into a highly profitable Class I railroad.

Gordon Trafton, who worked with Harrison at Burlington Northern, Illinois Central, and Canadian National, was part of the service design team that Harrison put to work in 1988 to create the first scheduled railroad plan. The plan was based on an effort Harrison led to develop the first car trip plans at BN in the early 1980s.

“Our job was to figure out how to trip-plan all merchandise cars on the railroad, coordinating the train schedules to do so that included block swapping and the elimination of switching in yards throughout the system,” Trafton recalls.

The objectives were to provide consistent and reliable service while controlling costs and maximizing asset utilization.

The trip plans were an outgrowth of the scheduled railroading concepts Harrison initially developed while at the Frisco and refined in his early days at BN, when he was an assistant vice president of transportation after BN's acquisition of the Frisco in 1980.

“No one was more passionate than Hunter about service, cost control, and asset utilization,” Trafton says.

But BN management at the time was not interested in Harrison’s idea of a scheduled railroad, Trafton says, which prompted Harrison to depart for the IC.

“The reality is Hunter is the only one who has been successful at a number of Class I’s in taking the scheduled railroading concepts, implementing them, and refining them over the years,” Trafton says.

Tom Utroska, who retired from Canadian National in 2001 as vice president of transportation, was an assistant division superintendent when Moyers and Harrison arrived at Illinois Central in 1989.

With the IC in dire financial straits, Moyers was by necessity intensely focused on cost-control, Utroska says. Moyers came to the railroad from MidSouth with a plan to single-track the IC main line and install centralized traffic control, Utroska recalls.

Moyers also was interested in proper use of a railroad’s assets. Utroska remembers taking a hi-rail trip with Moyers, who asked why a large pile of tie plates was sitting near a depot. Utroska told him they’d been there for more than a year, awaiting a rail relay project.

“A railroad that operates like that, with assets laying around, doesn’t deserve to be in business,” Utroska recalls Moyers saying.

But it was Harrison who put greater emphasis on improved utilization of assets like locomotives, freight cars, and train crews, Utroska says. Even more important: Harrison’s car scheduling system that covered the movement of cars from origin to destination.

“The key metric was trip-plan compliance. It was all Hunter’s push,” Utroska says. “He made us so aware of asset utilization and cost control.”

What Moyers did, Utroska says, was give people responsibility and then hold them accountable. And that created an environment where Harrison could prove the scheduled railroading concepts he had developed while at BN, he says.

“When Hunter came to the ICRR, he inherited a rag-tag group of operating officers, many of whom had been brow-beat for having fresh ideas,” Utroska says. “In one of his first meetings with the operating officers, he said, ‘If you stick with me, I’ll make you successful.’ He took that group … and led them to success. In short order, the ICRR went from the worst-run railroad to the most efficient. He was a leader and damn few of them exist.”

“Hunter’s the daddy of precision railroading,” Utroska says.

That’s a title Harrison never sought, according to Harrison biographer Howard Green, whose book, “Railroader,” was published last year.

“Hunter did not claim to be the sole inventor of Precision Scheduled Railroading and he said so,” Green says. “He began thinking about the concept in the early 1980s when he was at Burlington Northern, with the help of a few others including a computer programmer named Sue Rathe who provided him with data he didn’t know was possible to get.”

Harrison also was influenced by his Frisco mentor, Bill Thompson, who Green says also had ideas that today would be considered key PSR principles.

“As per Gil’s comments, it’s my understanding that Ed Moyers was developing the concept concurrently and independently before he and Hunter met at Illinois Central, and they both thought along the same lines when it came to railroading,” Green says. “Once Hunter took over as CEO of IC, he fine-tuned and proved the concept over a number of years. And from then on, most famously at CN, he became the best-known articulator and most successful practitioner of it — doing so on a much larger scale.”

Harrison and Lamphere coined the term “precision railroading” while working together at CN headquarters in Montreal, Lamphere says.

“Curiously, he really didn’t stick to one precise name for it, if you’ll excuse the pun,” Green says. “When he heard some people calling it ‘PSR,’ he said ‘what in the shit is that?’ He never, to my knowledge, used the initials PSR, which have become the common, current way to refer to the philosophy. His main concern was not so much the exact name for it, but whether you did it or not.”

In his presentation at the North East Association of Rail Shippers conference last week, Lamphere also credited PSR for helping to turn around an ailing Southern Pacific in the mid-1990s. Moyers ran the SP from 1993 to 1995, and put it into the black before its merger with Union Pacific.

But a former SP official tells Trains that the railroad didn’t operate according to plan. Rather, operational changes were made daily, on the fly.

“PSR had absolutely nothing to do with a profit turnaround at SP,” he says. “We did in fact tear up lots of second track over Donner (Pass in California) and the Modoc line and use that rail elsewhere, but that is not the real essence of PSR. We did not run to plan under Ed Moyers.”

Lamphere tells Trains that whipping the worn-out IC into shape was a team effort he saw from his unique perspective as chairman of the railroad.

“On IC what’s important to note is that Hunter was brought in as VP Transportation. But PSR is about integrating transportation, mechanical, engineering, commercial, finance, human resources and legal to fully implement transformational change and a change in culture – to tip vertical silos of expertise into horizontal silos of integration,” Lamphere explains. “This is what we were leading from on top. We all worked together and we all needed each other. And we needed a strong leader at the top to keep the functions working together since they were headed by strong-willed individuals. We needed a board of directors who totally backed these efforts and the discipline that was needed to enforce that teamwork.”

“Gordon and Tom are great railroaders and were right there in the proverbial trenches making important things happen, but I think Howard Green has the view from the bridge and reflects Hunter’s and my own perspectives as to timing and contribution,” Lamphere says. “All I can rightfully say is that it was a team effort that I was able to see from my vantage point as chairman as to who was doing what, when, and why at the IC.”

“As to the SP, precision railroading probably never was fully implemented,” Lamphere says. “Many principles got to be half employed, many other basic railroading principles were put in place, there were a lot of Band-Aids and Scotch tape, but personalities, ownership interests, corporate objectives and plain ole time got in the way of doing the full job that could have been done. But it was a helluva job by a helluva lot of great people led by Moyers and [Chief Mechanical Officer Henry] Chidgey, who were PSR’s from IC. So something or other involving PSR got rubbed off onto the process.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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