During the past 31 years at Railway Age, I’ve done several executive train trips, ranging from the CPKC (then KCSM) Nuevo Laredo-Mexico City main to Amtrak’s 10001 between Albany and Chicago to Hunter Harrison’s Illinois Central consist to the Indiana Rail Road, and several others. In many ways, my March 15 trip between Chicago and Detroit aboard CSX’s beautifully refurbished Executive Train was the most memorable, mainly because it was an opportunity to spend time with Joe Hinrichs, CSX’s recently appointed President and CEO, and a group of industry veterans who, in more ways than one, helped shape the industry into what it is today.
Joe, as he prefers to be called, has spent his first few months at CSX making some significant changes, while getting to know the people who run the railroad, day to day. With his young Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Jamie Boychuck, he’s been touring the railroad’s complex system, which at this writing is performing well—so well, in fact, that it so far is the only Class I to be exempted from some of the Surface Transportation Board’s stringent service and employment reporting metrics. CSX’s first-quarter 2023 financials were strong, “an encouraging start to the year,” as Joe put it.
More important, CSX, under Joe and Jamie’s leadership as well as that of Vice President Labor Relations Jeff Wall, was the first Class I to break ranks and offer paid sick leave (on top of paid time off negotiated in last year’s difficult national bargaining) to unionized employees. The move was unprecedented, and it set the stage for similar agreements across the industry. One by one, paid sick leave agreements are being forged with the unions representing the dedicated workers who keep this industry running. It’s long overdue, and they can thank the leader who came to railroading from the automotive industry (and let’s not forget he was a rail customer for many years, so he knows more than most about service).
Joe is a “car guy” with a collection of automobiles (mostly Fords, of course, like 2005 Ford GT VIN No. 5 and 2017 Ford GT VIN No. 3). I probably spent more time talking cars and automotive manufacturing than railroading with him, but it was enlightening because it’s very clear that he brings a different, much-needed perspective to this industry. As I see it, some of our railroads have been forced to spend way too much time dealing with negative public perception, much of it fueled by opportunistic, grandstanding politicians and misguided general media stories by reporters with a very limited understanding of railroads. All of this has been little more than a distraction from their efforts to improve safety and fix service problems. But that’s another story.
It’s easy to use a cliché and say Joe is a “regular Joe,” but that description fits him perfectly. He’s affable, a good listener, willing to learn, and genuine in that he really does care about CSX’s people. He led off our “Next Generation Freight Rail” conference on March 14. I’d interviewed him before, albeit briefly, and the conference was the first opportunity to have a meaningful discussion with him in a public forum. I look forward to many more.
The Executive Train ride was “one to write home about.” It was good to catch up with a group of veterans who were there to offer their lifetimes’ worth of experiences and accomplishments:
John McPherson served in various capacities on the Santa Fe Railway. He joined Illinois Central as Vice President Operations, working with Hunter Harrison before becoming President and CEO. Afterwards, he held the same title at Florida East Coast Railway and became a long-standing CSX Board member
Frank Turner served in various capacities at Norfolk Southern before joining MidSouth and serving as its Vice President Operations and later President and CEO. He then joined CSX, serving in various Vice President capacities before becoming President of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.
Jerry Davis was a long-time Union Pacific operating officer, rising to VPO. He joined CSX Corp. and became President of CSX Transportation. He then became President and CEO of Southern Pacific prior to its merger with Union Pacific. Upon the merger with UP, he became President of the railroad before his retirement.
Ed Burkhardt started his career on the Wabash and Norfolk & Western. He joined the Chicago & North Western when it became employee-owned and later became its Vice President of Transportation. He later left and created the Wisconsin Central and became its President and CEO, which shortly thereafter became a renowned regional railroad followed by a successful IPO before it was purchased by CN. He is President & CEO of RailWorld, Inc., which operates railroads and provides equipment leasing in United States and Europe. Ed is also one of the original co-founders of the Rail Management Program at Michigan State University.
Mike Mohan was a long time Southern Pacific officer. He became President and CEO when Phil Anschutz purchased the company, following its attempted merger with the Santa Fe. He instrumental in positioning the company with the Anschutz-owned Denver & Rio Grand Western, thus creating both organic growth and gateway expansion that set the stage for a later merger with UP. Afterwards, he became President and CEO of the Australian Railways upon their privatization. Subsequently, he was a consultant to the Mexican government and World Bank on various railway privatization matters.
Ron Batory (above) is a second generation railroader starting in the crafts upon graduation from college. The son of a rail labor leader, he worked for western and eastern Class I carriers as well as a regional railroad before transitioning to leadership roles for subsidiary companies of the Class I railroad community, namely the Belt Railway of Chicago and Conrail. Upon retirement, Ron was afforded the opportunity to provide public service as the 14th Federal Railroad Administrator after unanimous consent by the U.S. Senate.
Experiences like these are to be treasured. Sure, the train ride (especially the view from the theatre car, not to mention the freshly prepared food served in a rather elegant dining car) was an experience in itself. But mostly, it was about the people, listening to and learning from their experiences, and getting to know CSX’s new leadership.