2021 Railroader of the Year: Keith Creel, Canadian Pacific

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

RAILWAY AGE, JANUARY 2021 ISSUE: The 58th annual recipient of Railway Age’s Railroader of the Year Award is Canadian Pacific President and Chief Executive Officer Keith Creel. Creel has been instrumental in Canadian Pacific forging a leadership role in the industry, while acknowledging the railroad’s place in history and its role in driving the North American economy forward. He has helped renew Canadians’ and CP employees’ sense of pride in a company that connected a nation, and connected Canada to the rest of the world. Under his steady hand, and under very difficult circumstances this past year, CP has been a safe, efficient and productive railroad, enabling its customers to connect with domestic and global markets.

Keith Creel became President and CEO of Canadian Pacific on Jan. 31, 2017. He is the 17th person to lead the company since 1881. Creel was appointed President and Chief Operating Officer in February 2013 and joined the CP Board of Directors in May 2015. Prior to joining CP, he was Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at CN. He held various positions at CN, including Executive Vice President Operations, Senior Vice President Eastern Region, Senior Vice President Western Region, and Vice President of the Prairie Division. Creel began his railroad career at Burlington Northern Railway in 1992 as an Intermodal Ramp Manager in Birmingham, Ala. He also spent part of his career at Grand Trunk Western Railroad as a Superintendent and General Manager, and at Illinois Central Railroad as a Trainmaster and Director of Corridor Operations, prior to its merger with CN in 1999. Creel holds a Bachelor of Science in marketing from Jacksonville State University. He also completed the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He has a military background as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, during which time he served in the Persian Gulf War in Saudi Arabia.

RAILWAY AGE: Keith, on behalf of Railway Age and the Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation Rail Group, I’d like to congratulate you on being named our 58th Railroader of the Year. Well deserved.

KEITH CREEL: Thank you, Bill. I’d like to thank you and your staff at Railway Age for the recognition. Thinking about the many outstanding and iconic leaders that have preceded me being recognized, it’s humbling. I’m honored to share that history, certainly. But for me, it’s mostly about the 12,000 railroaders that I get the honor to serve and work with day in and day out who have made our collective success possible and continue to make it possible, even today. Thank you again, very much.

RA: You’re very welcome. This has been a particularly tough year, as we all know, in this industry, with the COVID-19 impacts and economic impacts, but the railroad industry in general has weathered it quite well. Can you talk just a bit about your experience this past year and how you handled this crisis? You’re still handling it, obviously.

KEITH CREEL: Well, unique, I guess, is an understatement-—certainly nothing I ever anticipated in my history or career prior to that. If you would have told me a year and a half ago this was going to happen, I’d have probably said it’s never going to happen. But I learned a long time ago never to say never. And this has been a challenging situation for all of us. But I’ll tell you where it all started, as a leader. The thing I thought about as number one is the responsibility to protect our employees’ safety and our responsibility to serve the communities and the customers, and serve the livelihoods that we support in this industry, and specifically at CP.

So we took a step back at the very beginning, and we said, “Listen, let’s focus on controlling what we can control, protecting each other so that we can continue to serve.” And that’s what we focused on. We’ve been very intentional about doing that. Everything has been centered around that key decision of protecting employee safety so that we can continue to serve. And with that mandate, our team went about the business of doing exactly that. And yes, we’ve all been in a storm, we continue to be in that storm, but the CP ship overall I think has fared extremely well, as has the industry. And I think that’s a reflection of the commitment to safety, the commitment to people and the commitment to serve that we all share and uniquely enjoy, and have in common in this industry.

RA: Going back to before your railroading career, you were in the U.S. military, and you served in the Middle East. How does your experience translate to your railroading career?

KEITH CREEL: The military was my segue into the railway. The leadership lessons I learned in the military date back to the Persian Gulf War. I was a very young lieutenant, early 20s, a commissioned officer in an actual war zone. I learned very quickly that to be a leader, you’ve got to earn respect, and to earn respect, you’ve got to treat people with respect. So that’s a very valuable lesson I carried from my military days into my railway days, leading by example, treating people with respect, making sure they understand that, yes, we have a job to do and, yes, we all have to be accountable. But at the end of the day, as human beings, we care about each other. I care about them, they care about me, and that creates the emotional commitment, the emotional connection.

It’s so necessary in our industry, because our industry requires so much of all of us. It’s an industry where you have to sacrifice often; it’s an industry that never sleeps. Our families depend upon it; the backbone of our economy depends upon it. It’s a great blend, and it’s also a great honor to serve. So the two married very well for me; they resonate well with my values. And that sense of service is something that, obviously, was required then. It’s something required today, working through people and with people, leading people to accomplish something they otherwise couldn’t accomplish alone or individually. But doing it collectively is something that really motivates me and something good in the railway industry; you get ample opportunity to engage in that.

RA: So how did you transition from the military? What prompted you to join our industry? Obviously, you’ve been very successful at it.

KEITH CREEL: Well, I’ll tell you, growing up, when I was in the military, I never dreamed of working for the railway. As all of us have in our lives, there are certain people who open doors for you, certain connections who give you a hand. And I have a very close friend, actually my best friend in life, who still works at BNSF Railway. He opened up the door for me to come to work at the BN and introduced me to the BN. And having a military background, shortly after the Persian Gulf War experience, the BN at that point was recruiting trainees, and, obviously, there was a good fit with my military and leadership experience. I had an opportunity.

Actually, marketing was my degree, marketing and management, when I was in university. And I thought I wanted to be a marketing guy. But at the same time, I had that internal motivation to lead people and I had an opportunity. I said, “Listen, if I’m going to sell business, I need to understand business.” So the military background and the operational background are very similar in a lot of ways. So I stepped into operations, and I never came out. It gets into your blood. Sometimes I’ve said it’s a fine line between love and hate, because some days my job is so demanding, our jobs are so demanding, on us and on our families. There are times you don’t like it, but there are a whole lot more good days than bad. It’s very rewarding. It has been a very rewarding career. I’ve been blessed to serve and work with some tremendous people.

RA: And one of those tremendous people—I guess you call him your mentor—is Hunter Harrison.

KEITH CREEL: When I went to the BN in 1992, Hunter had already shifted and transitioned. He was at the Illinois Central. But his legacy was there, obviously, given the parts of the BN I worked on, the old Frisco territory, which is where Hunter was from. He grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and worked at Tennessee Yard. I was working in Cherokee Yard, the sister hump yard to Tennessee Yard the Frisco built in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So I didn’t know him, but I knew all about him. Fast forward four years into my career. The Santa Fe-BN merger occurs. I had an opportunity after the merger to get closer to home. I had a young family.

John McPherson, who serves now on the CSX Board, used to be the Executive Vice President of Operations at that time at the IC. He interviewed me, recruited me and offered me a job in Memphis. I left BN at that point, joined IC, and day one, I met Hunter Harrison. So here I am, a trainmaster, frontline leader, frontline supervisor, entry level on the management side and operations, sitting in an office in downtown Chicago on the 21st floor of the NBC Tower with Hunter Harrison, who at that point was already a legend in the industry. Little did I know how much more his influence would grow on our industry. But I’ll tell you, then, at that point in my life, it was a bit overwhelming, and certainly something that I still remember to this day.

RA: But, obviously, Hunter saw something in you, as he said in the past. I had many conversations with him. He was Railroader of the Year twice, at the CN/IC and then at Canadian Pacific, and he often talked about you. And he talked about the connection you two had, that you two could almost know what the other was thinking. You really clicked.

KEITH CREEL: Hunter was a very iconic, visionary leader. I think we all know that, and certainly recognize and respect that. You can’t deny it. But I’ll tell you, from the very beginning, demanding is probably an understatement. Hunter demanded excellence. Effectively, if you were going to work with him, you had to produce results. Having come from similar backgrounds, similar cultures, both being from the South, to some, his influence and his leadership style could be overwhelming. He was more like the coach that you didn’t want to let down or the father or the mentor that you have in your life that you don’t want to let down. At the end of the day, that resonated with me. He challenged me mentally; he challenged me from a leadership standpoint. He continually put me in positions that in the beginning seemed a bit overwhelming. But there was a method to the madness, and it was a learning opportunity.

And not only did he challenge you and put you in situations, he worked  alongside you, and worked with you as long as you could understand what he was saying. And I did. Probably what some might say is that the stronger personality traits he had were filtered out, and I focused on the message. It resonated, and it made tons of sense, great common sense. It’s about doing the right thing. It may not be the easy thing. Often it isn’t. But if you’re willing to do the right thing, then success is going to follow.

I was blessed to have two decades of working with Mr. Harrison. It was challenging. I survived it. There were certain times that you thought maybe you’ wouldn’t, but at the end of the day, with Hunter, you were going to survive working with him, and meet his demands. You had to learn the way he thought. You had to learn what he looked at, what mattered to him. And he was very predictable in a lot of ways because it was always about the basics of the business. And if you’re not afraid, roll your sleeves up and get to the basics and learn it from the ground up. He wasn’t intimidated.  But if you wanted to sort of skate at the top level and try to act as if you knew what you really didn’t, that was very dangerous with him.

RA: So Hunter comes out of retirement to go to the Canadian Pacific; you join the Canadian Pacific. Of course, you had worked with him at CN for a number of years. And then in 2017, he leaves for CSX, which was his last assignment, and you’re in charge. So what is different about the CP today as contrasted with under Hunter? Is it a somewhat different railroad?

KEITH CREEL: I would say, Bill, it’s an evolved railroad. Fundamentals and the foundation are the same. What Hunter brought to CP, and why I joined Hunter on this journey, was to bring to CP a discipline called Precision Scheduled Railroading. We executed that operating model that became the foundation of the way we run the business. Now, when Hunter transitioned, we had been about fixing the company, creating all of our service, controlling our costs, and all the things that are fundamental to our success. He transitioned out. I had several years. The last, probably, two years, Hunter had some medical challenges, but he was always strong, and he always bounced back. But at the same time, he trusted me. And he brought me there with a mandate and an expectation. If I performed, I would take over the company. That was the plan.

So I had a lot of time to think about how we would pivot. And as soon as Hunter left, given where we were in our journey, it was time to pivot from being the local service provider to growing it. So the mandate I received from the Board was to provide the growth. And I had a very good knowledge of our network at that point. Given I was running the operations, I knew it quite well. I had experience in North America, and quite a bit of experience in the Canadian landscape with the other railway. So it didn’t take a lot of time for me to put a plan together with our team collectively. Number one: Create the same kind of discipline and culture of accountability within the sales and marketing team as we established in operations, combine the two, and be partners. Take the service, the foundation of what we provide, and create solutions for our customers. Then, we could deliver on increased value in the marketplace without over-committing, without destroying our reputation or our ability to actually run the business the way it has to be run, day in and day out.

So today, my style’s a bit different, but our fundamentals, our philosophies, our core values are the same. The company hasn’t changed in that regard. We’re just evolving. And quite frankly, the talent, the ministry that we focused on—my focus or my legacy is about leadership and about leaving the company better than I found it. So I’ve spent a lot of my time over the past two years developing and working with the marketing strategy and connecting with customers; rebuilding relationships with employees; and at the same time, helping train and develop leaders so that when I’m gone, I can look back and say, you’ll be able to interview that next CEO one day and say, “You know what? CP has really moved ahead since Keith left. What’s different about the company’s success?” And again, I think it’s going to be a story of evolution, not significant change, just normal growth, mature growth. As we change in this world, you change with it, and you grow with it.

RA: And there has been top-line growth. It’s widely understood that the Canadian railroads really got Precision Scheduled Railroading right, and have taken it to the next level. Talk a bit about the business growth that’s occurred. This year, of course, has been rough for everybody, but yet it has been a good year, relatively speaking. So where’s the growth coming from in terms of customers, in terms of what CP does? Your customer base?

KEITH CREEL: Overall, number one, our growth. We’ve led the industry in growth. Compared to last year, we’re flat. But compared to the industry, which shrunk, that’s something to be excited about, that we’re proud of. And even this year, we’ve had a lot of momentum because of the initiatives we’ve created. We call them self-help initiatives, customer solution initiatives. But, of course, this pandemic has set us all back, but we’re getting close to flat, which I think, again, is pretty phenomenal. But that said, it’s been about the strategy.

When I took over as CEO, I sat down with John Brooks, our Chief Marketing Officer. He reported to me prior to that as one of the two key lieutenants on my team. When I was running operations, they reported to me. I picked John as the leader. John clearly understood my mandate. We sat down together with a couple of other key leaders in our company and said, “Listen, how can we take all of the capacity we’ve created, plan our network trains and create solutions for customers so they can win in the marketplace?” We were blessed with a franchise, especially in the Canadian space, where we have the shortest length of haul for all the key markets we serve.

So on our best day, running in each of the key corridors, 200 miles shorter vs. our competitor’s, we should have a superior level of service. But we were not realizing it. So now that we’re realizing it, how do we monetize it? Well, along the way, PSR creates a whole lot of capacity, because the old way of running the railroad is you have a lot of cars and a lot of track, and the more business you have, the more cars you think you need, and the more locomotives and track you think you need. Well, PSR is about turning assets and doing more with less. So as you create longer, more efficient trains, then, obviously, you create capacity. We found ourselves with too many locomotives, and too much track. I’ve got to thank our predecessors. They had the vision to do this at every one of our locations in Canada. But in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto or Montreal, we were blessed with land to expand. So how do we take our superior franchise, combine that with our land holdings that we have contiguous to all of our terminals, and expand customers, and create those solutions? So that’s what we went about doing.

I can talk about each of our business units. There’s a story in each and every one, because it’s about how you take what you have and make it better, whether it’s innovation or driving the change narrative. In Canada, what do successful grain franchises look like? The model five years ago was the 112-car grain train. You could say that’s probably been a standard model in this industry for decades. Well, in Canada, we looked at it from a PSR standpoint. Is that really the best way to optimize the movement of grain? Well, no, we need to run bigger trains. So we innovated there. We’ve changed the narrative there.

We’ve gone into intermodal. We’ve taken land that’s strategically located inside our terminal in Vancouver, one of the major metropolises in Canada. It’s also the largest port on Canadian soil. We converted it into a partnership with the largest steamship company in the world, and became supply chain integrators in a transload. We’re building a transload right now that is going to open third-quarter 2021. It’s going to create a mousetrap that can’t be replicated.

We have a unique land. We’ve got a unique franchise. We’ve got a new set of employees and minds to put this together with a partnership that is going to be working well for that customer, helping them grow in the world market and in their space, as we grow with them for many more years to come. So those kinds of things are what we focused on, creating solutions that allow us to win and our customers to win. That’s what growth is all about in a PSR world.

RA: We’ve seen quite a few examples of that in recent weeks. Just in the past couple of weeks, we’ve reported on several CP projects having to do with, as you just described, transloading, intermodal. We’ve seen records set in grain haul, and, of course, grain is very big for the Canadian railroads. But those records continue to be set. So the growth is definitely there.

KEITH CREEL: That’s a work in progress. As we all know, these projects, they’re needle movers, as I call them. They don’t happen overnight. You plant the seeds, and you start the hard work of sowing those seeds to reap the harvest one, two, three years out. So these different self-help initiatives are all coming to fruition, but they’re among many that we haven’t sold. We announced our plans to convert additional land holdings in Vancouver to create an industrial park adjacent to that same location where we’re building the transload facility. That’s an additional 100 acres. That’s a two-, three-year vision before we get shovels in the ground to be able to do this, but it takes that kind of planning. And when you are thinking that way, and you’re being entrepreneurial—thinking about how I can help the customer, how I can help the economy, how I can help the environment win—you can lead yourself to those kinds of solutions. So it’s something that we’re blessed with, the opportunity to be able to do that, and the team to be able to convert.

RA: As you know, the railroad industry in the past few years has been almost exponentially deploying advanced technologies, which has really helped not only the operations, but also the relationships with the customers and the level of service. What are some of the important technology projects at CP?

KEITH CREEL: Safety and reliability are something that we have an obligation to deliver. I call it table stakes. It’s part of our success platform at our railway and in this industry. That’s starting to make some advances. At the same time, when it comes to technology, I don’t want to be on the bleeding edge of technology. And I call it the bleeding edge because you throw a lot of money away sometimes, good money chasing things that are not developed. But I don’t want to be behind. So our approach at CP has been to take a practical approach to develop and implement. You have to be able to do solutions that drive safety. Ultimately, when you drive safety, you improve safety, and you improve reliability, especially in a railway that depends upon asset turns and velocity. And in turn, you drive efficiencies. Safety is the platform, and technology is an enabler.

The past two years, as well as during this pandemic, we’ve been moving and working on some things that have come to fruition, that are needle movers for us. And it’s taking those practical applications and implementing them. I’ll speak to two that are very material. As you know, we’re a bulk railroad; we move a lot of grain trains, a lot of potash trains, a lot of coal trains. This journey started probably a decade ago on coal trains. CP, unique in this industry, developed for our wayside equipment detection an ability not just to measure hot wheel bearings to protect against journal burn-offs derailing trains, but took that same technology and applied it to create what we call cold wheel technology, not just hot bearing technology. It’s the application of those systems to measure the heat of a wheel when a train is in its braking effort.

In simple terms, you deploy them at the bottom of grades. When a train is going by at track speed, that brake use is putting heat on that wheel, and we’re measuring how much heat. Well, obviously, you get a heat pattern across a train. A good-braking train will develop so much heat on a wheel. Then, you can analyze and identify the specific trains and wheels in the cars that are not emitting the heat, which says the brake’s not working as effectively as it needs to. So we deployed that on the coal fleet. We used that as the test case. It’s a closed-loop system. We took the data and we drove brake reliability on our coal trains up dramatically. The bad actors went down greatly, and the braking effort increased tremendously.

We applied that to our potash fleet. And again, this was a multi-year journey that came to fruition this year. Transport Canada allowed us an exemption for using this cold wheel technology on our potash fleet. Now, we married that with another technology, which is our portal system. We took a different approach. The train can go through at track speed. We’re using infrared cameras and algorithms instead of the human eye to identify safety defects. We took the test data to Transport Canada and said, “Listen, we’re identifying 87% more defects than the human eye during a walking inspection. Give us an exemption. Let us prove the technology even more, so we can scale it up and apply it to other fleets.”

So now, on our potash fleet, we have an ability to bypass a visual safety inspection by using technology, and at the same time, bypass one of the brake inspections on that fleet specifically. Every one of those trains moves through the terminal and does not have to stop. We’re saving three to four hours dwell per train. And it’s not just the impact on that train. It ripples across your entire fleet, and every other train that you run through the terminal. So those kinds of practical, applicable solutions that drive safety, reliability and efficiency are the kinds of things we’re focused on most at CP. And we’ll continue to focus with that same mandate, that same mantra.

RA: That’s machine vision technology, which has proven, as you just said, very useful. What about Positive Train Control? The U.S. lines of CP are equipped and fully functional. What is the outlook for PTC in Canada? I know that there’s some sort of initiative under way. There is no Canadian federal mandate, but nevertheless, what can we expect from CP, from the Canadian railroads, in terms of PTC?

KEITH CREEL: We’re learning from our experience with the PTC we’ve applied on the U.S. operation. You could say it’s obsolete already. So the Canadian regulator is working in partnership with the Canadian railroads. We’re going to look at it. We’re going to study it, but the view is not replicated. We want to do something that’s more positive, probably quicker to adapt and implement. My guess is PTC will never happen in Canada as we know it in the U.S. Given that we’re a decade later, there are other technologies and other strategies to deploy that can give us a greater step in safety and reliability and efficiency, that you’ll see us deploy eventually, on the Canadian side. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, though. Again, it’s something there is a focus on and that we’re paying attention to.

RA: I want to talk about the history of CP a bit. Now, the Canadian Pacific, in a sense, built Canada, with the transcontinental and all of the marvelous engineering that was implemented by some of your predecessors. You in particular have really paid attention to that history. It’s that focus on what CP means to the communities you serve, what CP means to the nation of Canada as a whole. That’s something you have really embraced. Talk about that a bit.

KEITH CREEL: As a leader, it’s important that you create vision. And I quickly realized and learned when I came to CP how much pride existed in our company. I competed against CP for 17 years. I knew about CP. I knew it was an iconic Canadian company. But I didn’t fully understand the history, nor did I fully understand the commitment that was tied to that history. In 1885, in partnership with Canada, CP connected the country. It connected British Columbia physically from the West to the rest of Canada.

To have that woven into your fiber, to understand the history and to know how much the nation, commerce, the livelihood of people, the communities, the jobs connect all together creates a sense of obligation, of commitment, and a huge sense of pride that we take seriously. So I tapped into that. When I took over, bringing back the Canadian Pacific beaver was one of my first decisions.

RA: Right, the logo.

KEITH CREEL: Some might say that was pretty simple. With Hunter, we’d been on a mission to focus the company on reinventing itself. So the beaver in its symbolic importance sort of faded away during those times of transition. But given that we had reinvented ourselves, I wanted something to bring our company together, because we’d be going through a lot of change. And listen, we didn’t get it all right. You don’t drive that kind of change that fast, and get it all right. So I wanted something for people to rally around. And that beaver, that logo, says so much about commitment and hard work in our history. I called Mark Wallace, who works with CSX now. I said, “Mark, the beaver is back. I want it put back up on the corporate office. We’re going to redesign and recreate our next generation’s logo.” So I sat down with Mark’s team and said, “Listen, this is what CP was. This is what we’ve transitioned with in the new CP, and this is what we’re going to be going forward.”

So it’s all about not forgetting where we came from, realizing that we’ve got a responsibility to our past, but also a responsibility to create success in the future. And that’s where our new CP logo came from. I don’t want to say it was the best decision I’ve ever made, but certainly, it was one that resonated with our employees and exceeded my expectations. It’s something we’re all very proud of.

RA: Well, it’s important, I think, to give employees a sense of continuity. And also for the younger people coming into the company, so they can feel connected in a way that they realize that they are working for a company with a great tradition, a great history in that sense of Canadian national pride. I think that’s important. Would you agree?

KEITH CREEL: I would agree. It resonates with people as human beings to feel like you belong to something that’s bigger than yourself, to feel like you’re helping create a success that’s bigger than yourself. I think as human beings, it resonates with all of us. It’s the way God wants it. We want to make a difference. We want to leave it better. And when you can get people around that vision, it’s a glue and a foundation that represents all of those things, past, present and future. A sense of responsibility. I think that’s a great thing.

RA: Let’s talk a little bit about the future in terms of the people at CP and also in the industry. There has been a transition going on now for the better part of a decade. A lot of the experienced people have reached retirement and have moved on, but there are a lot of good young people at CP. Every year with our Under 40 recognition and our Women in Rail, Canadian Pacific has always had somebody there. So the industry is changing, and for the better. Talk about what you’re doing at CP.

KEITH CREEL: I remember, it seems like yesterday, when I was the young guy. I’m not the young guy anymore. But I can tell you at CP, the people are key to our success. The operating model we deploy, you can have the books about it. It’s not rocket science. It’s all about execution, and to execute, you’ve got to have the right people who are motivated and wired and share similar values and are committed and willing to sacrifice. I’ve been blessed with what I’ve known to be the best team collectively that I’ve ever worked with in the industry, and I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years—like-minded individuals with similar values, all with a sense of commitment to each other, as well as a sense of service. We all understand. Listen, we can all get along; we all do. There’s a very unique esprit de corps within our company. I see this often. The CP family, we sacrifice for each other, we serve each other, we love each other through the good times and bad times. But at the end of the day, we all have to earn our seat at the table. We all have to pull our own weight.

The people I work with, who I lead and I serve with, all know that there’s no free rides. You produce results. We do it in the right way, in a respectful way. When you do, you don’t have to apologize for it. And the result is going to produce success. And that’s our responsibility to each other, as well as to our shareholders and our customers. Again, that resonates, and it has created chemistry within the company that people want to be a part of.

Success breeds success. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We all want to be able to one day sit with our kids, and not only provide a good living, but say, “You know what, everything I did in life mattered. I helped create something that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to be created, something we’re proud of.” To me, to create a culture that can give that to people is just as important as the success you create. It’s the way of, again, serving people, working with people. I just think it’s the right thing, the way we’re all wired at CP.

RA: I always ask our Railroaders of the Year if they can point to one or more defining moments in their careers or in their lives that helped shape them. What are some of yours?

KEITH CREEL: Our stories make up who we are as individuals, but there’s only probably a handful of people and experiences that mark you. I’ve been blessed to work with some really good people. The military gave me my foundation. My family and values, where I came from originally, is where it all started, but the military reinforced that sense of service. And then for me, Hunter, when I came to work in the industry, or shortly thereafter. To see someone who was so motivated to serve and create success was pivotal for me. It was the fuel that lit my fire inside.

And then the next point, meeting my wife. You’re going to live a railroader’s life, especially if you’re going to do the things we’ve been required to do. We’ve moved 13 times. She’s got a servant’s heart, and she’s been committed our family. She truly is the one that has allowed me the space to do what I do, and raised our children. She’s the real CEO in our home, my closest advisor who I love dearly, a very pivotal person for me. Finally, there’s my sense to serve other people, my sense of responsibility that my Christian values give me. At the end of the day, we all want to make a difference in life. I want to leave it better than I found it, and this is an industry that requires sacrifice, that gives you a great reward if you’re willing to do it.

So those things along the way—Hunter, my wife, where I came from, all the people I’ve been blessed to work with. I could say going to work for the IC was when I really learned the fundamentals of railroading. But then when Hunter left CN, coming to CP, I never would have imagined in my 17 years at CN that I would work for, much less lead, the company that I competed so passionately against.

But when I came, to me, that was God saying, it was fate, and it’s a decision I’ve never regretted. There are a lot of great people at CN. It’s a great franchise. I’m still friends with a lot of those folks, and I’ll always care about them. But my path and my purpose is to be with this company, and it’s something that every day motivates me to get up and do what I do. I’m really blessed to be a part of the success stories and part of our story at CP.

RA: In relation to the company’s history, of course, CP has that beautiful steam locomotive, 2816, the Empress, which has not been in service now for a few years. I understand it has been lovingly cared for and has always been roadworthy. Are there any plans to roll it out again? Much to the delight of the communities and also to a lot of railroaders, we would love to see it running again.

KEITH CREEL: Well, Bill, you probably would not be surprised if I told you that I get that question many times in a year. I’d probably underestimate how many emails or how many contacts I get with a desire to see 2816, that famous locomotive, run again. It last ran on our rails, I believe, back in 2012. And since then, it has been in storage at our office, being very well, lovingly cared for. It gets a white glove treatment. But at the same time, to maintain a locomotive like that and to keep it certified, to operate it, is extremely expensive, and it just has not been our primary focus. But we’ve maintained it well. I’ve declined and resisted for eight or nine years now. I’ve said ‘no’ more times than I care to, because it was the right answer at the time. But when exceptional situations and circumstances occur, you do some exceptional things. This past year, certainly, I would suggest has been an exceptional year.

In line with the history of the company, our predecessors created this. It’s something I’m certainly proud to be a part of. On an annual basis for the past two decades, CP has taken our unique, iconic Royal Canadian Pacific fleet—what I consider to be the best in the world run by the best people in the world—and operated two Christmas trains to go across our Canadian and U.S. properties and make stops in communities we serve to raise money to donate to food banks to feed people who aren’t as fortunate as we are. It has been a work of service we’ve been honored to do.

But, obviously, we had to make the tough decision last year that it wasn’t safe to create public events that draw people to collect together. I wouldn’t have felt responsible doing that. So we decided to do something unique and different at our corporate office. We had a mini train trip with our fleet. We presented a concert, and we raised money for those communities and food banks that needed support.

To make it unique and special, an exceptional decision was made to get the 2816 out on December 12. We went about the work of putting the 2816 together with the Royal Canadian Pacific fleet, and we ran the Empress 2816 Christmas train in our corporate office compound. It didn’t get out on the main line. It stayed within the yard. But we have some beautiful footage of that locomotive running, and I’ll tell you, when I’m watching it, the hairs on my arm stand up to think about the day when that steam locomotive was in its prime, running day in and day out with its sisters in this industry. Again, it pulls you back to a past that’s so important for all of us, both at CP and in this industry, and how we’ve connected the country and connected commerce.

I hope we can get back out on the road and run our Christmas trains as normal this year.

RA: Keith, once again, congratulations on being named Railroader of the Year. We look forward to presenting you with the award. It’s well deserved not only for you, but for all the people of Canadian Pacific, and also, by extension, for your customers and all the people of Canada, really. Congratulations.

KEITH CREEL: Thank you again. For the CP family, we’re honored, blessed and humbled by the recognition. Stay healthy, stay safe, and we look forward to seeing everyone out on the rails.


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