More of the TRAINS Interview with Norfolk Southern's Bill Schafer

In the July 2011 issue, David C. Lester interviewed Bill Schafer, the recently retired NS director of strategic planning. The conversation continues here

Q: What part of your career gave you the most satisfaction?

A: A key career goal for me was to work for a major Class I in an area of responsibility where my contribution was valued, and this goal was realized in 1982, when I had an opportunity to join the corporate development department, later known as strategic planning.  I grabbed that opportunity and stayed with it until 2011.  I enjoy the historical and recreational aspects of railroading as much as I do actually working on the railroad, and strategic planning enabled me to combine the two.  I also served as an unofficial company historian, and frequently fielded some questions from those within and outside the company about railroad history.

Q: Which of your roles at Southern Railway, prior to the formation of NS, did you enjoy the most?

A: I enjoyed all the roles to one degree or another, but one of the most interesting was my time as an internal auditor.  This job was in Atlanta, where I lived for about five years, and the fact that I had been in the field for several years previous helped me get the job.  One of the most fun audits was of the dining car department.  I learned how it worked, with key focus on requisition, and controls.  This was an inside look at a department that I don’t think a whole lot of folks got to see.  Passenger accounting audits were also interesting, and the most memorable one was the famous “pen and pencil” audit, which is going to be the subject of an upcoming article in either Trains or Classic Trains.  After 3.5 years in internal audit, I was instrumental in developing a job for myself in the purchasing department that involved inspecting work done by contractors.  After a year and a half as an inspector, I was promoted to a buyer’s job in Southern’s headquarters in Washington.

Q: What was one of the key influences in the development of your interest in railroading?

A: Interestingly, I have to say Trains magazine. Trains was probably the most influential factor in shaping my interest, at least in my early years.  Trains was a major source of news, information, and opinion, for both the enthusiast and those interested in the nitty-gritty of the business.  My mother gave me a subscription to Trains for my 12th birthday, and the first issue was the magazine’s 20th anniversary issue.  I just noticed that the magazine recently celebrated its 70th anniversary.  In a way I feel like Trains and I have grown up together, and I’ve had a lot of respect for the organization, its publications, and its staffers over the years, including David Morgan.  I was bashful around him, and didn’t pursue an acquaintance with him as much as I wish I had, but I’m grateful for the times that we did correspond and visit.  I suspect there are more opinion leaders in the industry who read Trains than I’m aware of.  In my view, the magazine occupies a fairly unique position as a voice of railroading for those of us who believe that there is a logical and noble reason for railroading to exist.

Q: There is a perception that railroads, particularly Class Is, tend to shy away from hiring rail enthusiasts, and if one is hired, it’s best for that person to keep their interest to themselves.  Has that been your experience?

A: I remember when I first hired on that the terms “train nuts,” “railfans,” and “rail enthusiasts” were sort of dirty words within the rail industry.  Those who were hired would get the message that they needed to keep their enthusiasm under their hats, and don’t take any obvious pleasure in it other than what the job offers.  I felt a little bit different about that myself, and never have tried to hide my interest. I was likely emboldened because of W. Graham Claytor, who was an acknowledged rail buff, happened to be president of  Southern Railway when I hired on.  After a while, working for the company, I would run across other people who were train buffs, both in and out of the closet.  There is a significant number of rail employees who have an interest in the industry over or above the job itself.  The key is to focus on the job at hand and keep your extracurricular interests in check. Those who can do so should work out well.  And railroading is not unique in this aspect: how many pilots do you know who love to fly?  The same thing is true for those in the maritime industry – people with a passion for the sea work on tugboats, in the merchant marine, or in the Navy just so they can be out there on the water.  Avocational interest in one’s industry is not unique to railroading.  Further, the railroad is still a place where you can make a full career, and earn a pension; young people today are told that their typical careers will not include pensions, they will work for multiple employers, and will have to start all over again a number of times during their working lives.  In contrast, someone taking a job with a Class I railroad can still make railroading a lifelong career, with a pension and railroad retirement, which is a step above social security.  If I had it to do all over again, I would still find a career in the rail industry, and pursue my interest in railroading. 

Hear more from Norfolk Southern's Bill Schafer in the July 2011 issue of Trains Magazine.
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