Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: “My Life with Trains: Memoir of a Railroader”

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Book Review: “My Life with Trains: Memoir of a Railroader”

In his just-published “My Life with Trains: Memoir of a Railroader,” the late Jim McClellan (June 10, 1939 – Oct. 14, 2016) left us with a detailed description of how difficult leadership can be.

This assessment is based on my personal interpretation of Jim’s memoir writing, combined with my personal observations of those timelines while I was also working for Jim (a two-year cumulative period over two separate periods at USRA and at Norfolk Southern as a consultant to Jim), plus a trusting personal relationship with him between 1974 and 2016.

My Life With TrainsThis book, which follows 2011’s “My Life with Trains, Volume I” (which is mostly a book of Jim’s railroad photography), is instead a highly technical discussion of railroad industry events that occurred during Jim’s life. It is his interpretation as a strategic thinker about the options, the debates, the missed opportunities and the choices governments, regulators and railroad senior management and boards made—or might have made. It includes observations of events during his career, which encompassed Southern Railway, New York Central, Amtrak, FRA, USRA, AAR and finally, Norfolk Southern.

The memoir talks about missed mergers that might have happened, and why they didn't happen for human reasons as well as strategic and financial reasons. It’s an economic perspective that’s not always covered so deeply by investigative reporters or other memoirs. It’s about the challenge of trying to spearhead new thinking about the commerce of railroading amidst mode shift changes and even financial bankruptcy. It’s also about his periodic fears of even his best ideas being doubted, picking his battles and often biding his time, and yes, even about now and then being embarrassed, or at a loss for words in front of his superiors.

Jim’s memories reveal a side most of us never saw: his intellectual self-doubt from time to time. Most of us that worked with Jim only remember him as being quite confident as a railway intellectual leader. He knew that sometimes being “corporate lucky” is better than being smarter than the competitor.

Jim recognized that the CSX network in the 1980-1996 period was superior in route coverage and distances in key markets to that of his Norfolk Southern, and that the relatively poorer NS network in markets like Florida, Chicago and New York/Northern New Jersey actually handicapped NS in defining an east-west merger option.

That structural network coverage weakness almost forced Norfolk Southern into a fixed-focus, decade-long pursuit of Conrail as the only way to create an enduring and strong commercial future for NS, because anything less than a better Conrail route and market access strategic plan would likely create a long-term, second-tier competitive network outcome for NS.

Corporately, NS leaders couldn’t deal with the thought of ending up being a long-term, 40% market share railroad against a strong network company like a Union Pacific-CSX-Conrail. By that admission of weakness, Jim reveals what continually drove NS to pursue a Conrail option.

That network weakness was often overlooked by those who, like me, worked inside Conrail. Most of us saw NS as the giant, simply because NS had such a superior financial profile. Inside Conrail, many of us failed to recognize as a corporation that NS had this “weakness.” NS didn't have a better merger option. And its corporate culture couldn’t accept becoming a second-tier survivor during what might be the last merger wave.

Jim reminds the reader that one of the first principles of corporate wars is “to know your enemy” and “to know yourself,” and that it took the shock of a friendly CSX/Conrail deal for Norfolk Southern leadership to come to that conclusion in September of 1996.

In the end, Norfolk Southern had a very healthy balance sheet. The NS executive team, led by David Goode, conquered CSX and Conrail by waking up to the serious threat, and then outspending both to win over Conrail shareholders. NS suddenly and unexpectedly became extremely aggressive. Money was no object when long-term survival as a top dog was at stake.

The book covers a large section of Jim’s life. To me, the USRA period, the CSX early eighties period, and the three different merger runs at Conrail are the most compelling, because I was also engaged in those events.

Jim’s recollection of events and the people—the human as well as organizational tensions—is well balanced and accurate. If you are interested in railroad economics and leadership issues, this book should be in your library. Jim McClellan’s memoirs provide a series of valuable history lessons, not just for us older folks, but also for those who face the next 30 to 40 years of uncertainty and opportunity.

“My Life with Trains: Memoir of a Railroader,” by James W. McClellan. Edited by George M. Smerk and J. Roger Grant. Indiana University Press, 2017. Hardcover, 303 pages. $45. ISBN: 978-0-253-02400-8.













Jim Blaze

Independent railway economist Jim Blaze has been in the railroad industry for well over 40 years. Trained in logistics, he served seven years with the Illinois DOT as a Chicago long-range freight planner and almost two years with the USRA technical staff in Washington, D.C. Jim then spent 21 years with Conrail in cross-functional strategic roles from branch line economics to mergers, IT, logistics, and corporate change. He followed this with 20 years of international consulting at rail engineering firm Zeta-Tech Associates. Jim is a Magna cum Laude Graduate of St. Anselm’s College with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, Married with six children, he lives outside of Philadelphia. “This column reflects my continued passion for the future of railroading as a competitive industry,” says Jim. “Only by occasionally challenging our institutions can we probe for better quality and performance. My opinions are my own, independent of Railway Age.”

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