Meet the artist behind CSX's commemorative units: Tyler Hardin

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Tyler Hardin with one of the three commemorative units he's designed for CSX.
Chris Anderson
An early front porch drawing by Tyler Hardin.
Hardin family collection
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Sitting in the darkness at a picnic table under a shed at CSX's Huntington Heavy Repair shop, Tyler Hardin's face lights up when he recalls where his love for art began. 

"The railroad is where I got my start as a kid, the CSX Cincinnati-Corbin mainline running in front of my grandparents' house … I’d sit out (on their porch) and draw trains on old typewriter paper as they went by." The drawings were the products of a kindergarten-aged child sketching next to his grandfather, who encouraged his grandson's interest in art. The diesels somewhat resembled race cars in those drawings, but those two-dimensional pictures of CSX locomotives, auto racks and orange Tropicana reefers on 10-foot strands of paper eventually evolved into rudimentary 3D sketches the now-27-year-old Hardin says laughingly "look terrible when you look back on them."

Now, by day, Hardin is a factory worker, employed at Toyota's massive manufacturing facility in Georgetown, Ky. By night, he is a graphic designer who has already left his fingerprints on numerous high-profile railroading and railfanning events over the past several years.

Hardin's name is now familiar with thousands of railfans, thanks, in large part, to his work with CSX on its growing fleet of specially-painted locomotives honoring veterans and first responders. The railroad rolled out locomotives the "Spirit of Our Armed Forces" No. 1776 — decked out in a camouflage paint scheme — and the "Spirit of Our First Responders" No. 911 — wearing a fire truck-inspired paint job — on April 30 at the Huntington shops in West Virginia. On August 22, the newest addition, CSXT 3194, the "Spirit of Our Law Enforcement", wearing black-and-blue dress, rolled out of Huntington. Hardin, now three times out with special paint schemes for CSX, is still in awe that he gets to have a hand — the heaviest hand — in the ultimate designs of the special schemes.

"I could see it, touch it, feel it, but there's something about this that still feels like a dream," he says. “... What did I do to deserve this?"

Hardin first became known to CSX in 2015. A designer and artist in his early 20s at the time, he began attempting to make contacts within CSX. After two-and-a-half years of posting photos of CSX trains and equipment to social media, some with what he says were "corny, inspirational" phrases attached, he finally caught the attention of an executive in the pre-Hunter Harrison CSX corporate office in Jacksonville, and that led to him selling 10 photos to the company. "Through my bull-headedness, I finally got someone to notice me," Hardin says. The young designer felt his foot enter the proverbial door at CSX. Shortly after, however, Harrison took control at the railroad and "everything went radio-silent after that," Hardin says, and he didn't hear back from the railroad for about a year.

Enter CSX's Eric Hendrickson.

The relationship between Hendrickson, the network planning and special projects director for CSX, and Hardin began in 2015. The two met and became acquaintances, with Hardin sharing tips with Hendrickson on railfanning the rail lines slicing through Kentucky between Cincinnati and the Tennessee border. By then, Hardin's talent was already known to Hendrickson, who saw an opportunity with the young designer.

When the plans for the 75th CSX Santa Train were being laid out in 2016, Hendrickson commissioned Hardin to design a special logo commemorating the newly-restored Clinchfield Railroad EMD F7 No. 800 and Clinchfield SD45 No. 3632 leading the Santa Train. Hendrickson also tasked Hardin with designing posters commemorating the event and featuring the 800 and 3632. It was then that Hardin made his first trip to Huntington to get a closer look at the 800 for the poster design. "I figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime deal to come out here, have a lot of fun, take pictures of everything and that'll be it," he says. The art-deco posters that resulted, which were sold as a fundraiser for the Kingsport (Tennessee) Chamber of Commerce's Santa Train Scholarship, were overwhelming hits, selling out the initial 5,000-sheet run and forcing a second run and raising tens of thousands of dollars for the scholarship fund. Hendrickson says the posters elicited tears of joy in Jacksonville. Tyler Hardin was, metaphorically, back in the building with CSX.

"It helps that he's a railfan because you almost need that railfan mentality to do some of these things," Hendrickson says. "You can have a graphics designer, they can design you anything you want but it's not going to really convey the message for what our industry is or what we're trying to do and make it fit. Tyler understands that right off the bat … and he'll draw it and it fits our needs perfectly.”

Riding high on the success of the 2016 Santa Train, another set of Hardin's designs was released. In January 2017, the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Company unveiled its specially-painted locomotives designed by Hardin honoring veterans. LIRC also rolled out a special Hardin-designed logo commemorating the shortline's 25th anniversary. That same year also included design work for the C&O Historical Society, Kentucky Railway Museum and the L&N Historical Society. Later in 2017, Hardin designed the logo for the then-upstart Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation, of which Hardin has been a part since its inception. He calls the Kentucky Steam logo his favorite design to date.

The following two years were busy for Hardin. He took on design jobs for numerous businesses and politicians seeking re-election — Hardin proudly says each candidate won their respective race. In late 2018, the idea for the commemorative schemes at CSX began swirling around Hendrickson's head. Now a close friend and confidant — "It's hard not to love the guy" — Hendrickson looked toward his humble designer from Kentucky.

Hardin immediately became a fixture around the Huntington shops, getting to know the shop crews, particularly those working in the paint booth. Once believing his only trip to Huntington would be for the Clinchfield 800 project, he's now quite comfortable there. "It's kind of like coming home because you walk in, everybody knows your name, it's kind of like the theme song from 'Cheers,'" Hardin says smiling. “…They’re like, 'Oh, man, what's coming next?'"

Numerous drafts and sleepless nights led to the final designs for the 911, 1776 and 3194. After the rollout of the law enforcement locomotive, sitting in the darkness and streetlights at the Huntington shops, Hardin, with his perennial "Aw shucks" attitude, takes a look at the 3194 and says he's thrilled to simply be a part of the process. "This is a dream job. I'd love to do this full-time for them, design, photography, whatever, but just the fact that I'm doing it now, even at this level, is still like, if it were all to stop today, I'd still be beyond content just with what's happened."

Hardin acknowledges that he's gained notoriety for his work with CSX. He says when the 911 and 1776 operate anywhere with a hundred miles of his home in Cynthiana, he gets bombarded with texts and messages offering updates, or seeking updates, on the locomotives' locations. He also says his natural instinct, to divert the attention he receives relative to the diesels onto the folks at the Huntington shops, is sometimes met with a declaration to "just take the compliment." He says, however, that he, true to form, remains humble. "It's still hard to process people coming up to me and shaking my hand because I fight every instance of bragging as much as I can because even though sometimes I like it, I try to fight it," he says. "But I'm also like I need to enjoy this because, granted, these engines will be around for a long time, they're only new once."

Now, two decades removed from drawing trains on his grandparents’ porch on typewriter paper next to his grandfather, Hardin, a bonafide railroad graphic designer and go-to-guy for special projects at CSX, continues to wonder why he has had the opportunity to work so closely with the railroad. "I'm just a grateful-to-be-here kind of guy. While all this stuff is happening, I'm just living the best life.” Eric Hendrickson says he knows why.

"He's so friendly and so humble that at times, it almost puts you off because you don't expect him to be that way and it's paid dividends, because nobody wants to deal with a prima donna,” Hendrickson says. “… He’s a godly guy and he's clearly taken those values and just from being a decent person, he's realized he doesn't need to be a jerk and he's terrific."
From the front porch to the Huntington shops; "For me, everything has come full-circle," Hardin says.

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