Harrison began his career in 1963 as a carman-oiler with the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, while he was still in high school. During his career, he became famous for applying the "scheduled railroad" concept to railroads to improve their operating efficiency.The scheduled railroad concept is straightforward enough. Trains are made up of cars that are moving cargo from a shipper to a consignee. Take care of serving the shippers, and the trains will take care of themselves.
Hunter Harrison learned railroading at the knee of a brilliant, profane Texan, William (Pisser Bill) Thompson, who was on his way to becoming VP-operations of the Frisco in the late 1960s when Hunter encountered him at Tennessee Yard in Memphis. “Young man,” said Thompson, spreading his arm toward a sea of freight cars, “what do you see out there?” “A lot of good business, Mr. Thompson,” replied Harrison. Retorted Thompson: “What? Good business? See, that’s the difference, Hunter. I see a bunch of delayed cars, and you say it’s good business.”He took that lesson to heart, although Trains columnist Fred Frailey sees strengths and weaknesses.
Harrison learned inventory control and asset utilization. Later, within Burlington Northern’s Seattle Region, he tried before others did to run individual cars strictly by schedule, thereby getting better utilization of equipment, including locomotives. Later still, running operations at Illinois Central, he put into practice all the ideas that had been brewing within him, including balance—if you run a train east, run one west, and better yet, have them meet mid-way and swap crews, thereby ending away-from-home expenses. He later did his magic at Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, and upon his death was eight months into a remaking of CSX.His latest project, CSX, might have posed a different set of challenges. Back to Mr Frailey.
So a genius at railroad operations, yes. But was the man a genius at running a railroad? Running a railroad, after all, is about more than running trains. You have to consider retaining your customers and finding new ones, dealing with government, building high morale and on and on and on. No, he was not a genius, and in fact I would call the man merely ordinary in some aspects of being a chief executive and deficient in a few critical areas. To say this does not detract one iota from the respect I have always shown for him. We are all imperfect creatures.
Did Harrison put the railroad on the right path or leave it in shambles, having ripped its practices and institutional knowledge almost to shreds while not living long enough to build a new foundation? I wish the former but suspect the latter.The succession in the executive suite, or at quarterback, matters, and yet there is a lot of precision transportation that relies on alert sales agents, billing clerks, and dispatchers.
His former colleague at CN and now his successor at CSX, Jim Foote, has his work cut out. I interviewed Foote in 2009 and thought him whip-smart and funny (meaning a quick thinker). Nowhere in his background is experience in operations. And operations is where CSX now stands exposed.
Lastly, I wish Hunter Harrison had been better teaching people how to think like him than he was, through his Hunter Camps, to act like him. It’s an important distinction. In other words, you can tell me what to do (Hunter Camps) but how do I learn to think like you? Maybe that is our biggest loss.