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American ShipperShipping

Longtime railroad executive E. Hunter Harrison dies at 73

The sudden passing of the former president and CEO of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific and current CEO of CSX E. Hunter Harrison leaves questions about the Class I railroad’s transition to Harrison’s precision scheduled railroading model.

   Longtime railway executive E. Hunter Harrison died on Saturday at the age of 73.
   A former president and chief executive officer of Class I railroads Canadian National Railway (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP), Harrison was named president and CEO of Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Corp. in March. At the time, Harrison downplayed any health concerns after being spotted using a portable oxygen machine prompted questions about whether he could handle the physical demands of running a Fortune 500 company.
   Earlier this week, CSX said Harrison would be taking a leave of absence in order to recover from “unexpected complications from a recent illness.”
   To those in the railroad industry, Harrison was something of a legend, a messianic figure credited with remarkable turnarounds in operating and financial performance at both CN and CP.
   “It is with great sadness that we announce that E. Hunter Harrison, president and chief executive officer of CSX, died today in Wellington, Fla., due to unexpectedly severe complications from a recent illness,” the company said in a statement Saturday. “The entire CSX family mourns this loss. On behalf of our board of directors, management team and employees, we extend our deepest sympathies to Hunter’s family. Hunter was a larger-than-life figure who brought his remarkable passion, experience and energy in railroading to CSX.”
   Edward J. Kelly III, chairman of the CSX board of directors, said Jim Foote, who was named acting CEO while Harrison was meant to be on leave, will remain in the role until a permanent successor is found.
   “With the passing of Hunter Harrison, CSX has suffered a major loss,” said Kelly III. “Notwithstanding that loss, the board is confident that Jim Foote, as acting chief executive officer, and the rest of the CSX team will capitalize on the changes that Hunter has made.”
   The changes to which Kelly refered revolve around CSX’s transition to Harrison’s “precision scheduled railroading” (PSR) operating model, which at its core is about moving the same amount of cargo with fewer trains, equipment and personnel. Harrison wrote about the precision railroading philosophy in his 2005 book, How We Work and Why. It consists of seven principles: minimizing car dwell times in yards, reducing car classifications, using multiple traffic outlets, running general-purpose trains, balancing train movements by direction, minimizing power requirements, and striving for steady workflow.
   Upon his arrival at CSX, Harrison began making the kind of drastic changes necessary to implement the PSR model. Customers, however, less than enthusiastic about service disruptions that took place during the early stages of the transition, prompting the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to request monthly operational reports detailing CSX’s progress.
   Things seemed to finally be quieting down after a tumultuous first six months with Harrison at the helm, but his sudden absence could potentially delay or even derail the work already done, especially if the management board brings in a leader that doesn’t share Harrison’s management philosophy.
   “The board will continue to consider in a deliberative way how best to maximize CSX’s performance over the long term,” said Kelly.

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