Forward-thinking Jim McClellan always looked back

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, December 05, 2016

The encomiums that have poured from various quarters since the death of Jim McClellan are proof that we lost someone extraordinary on October 14. We’ve seen a lot of railroading’s giants pass in recent years, but I can’t recall anyone who triggered the kind of deep, emotional response accorded Jim.

The basic facts of Jim’s incredible life are impressive enough. One of railroading’s great true believers, he managed to have a critical role in most of the sweeping changes of the last 50 years. A 1961 graduate of Penn’s Wharton School of Business, Jim racked up a succession of key jobs at New York Central, Penn Central, Southern, the U.S. Railway Association, the AAR, and finally the top strategic planning post at Norfolk Southern. We’ll learn more about him in May 2017 when Indiana University Press releases his book, My Life with Trains: Memoir of a Railroader.

Jim was an asset to every business or agency he ever worked for, but his greatest impact was on the people who worked with him. Many of them were among the throngs who attended various memorial events October 28-29 in his adopted hometown of Virginia Beach. I asked a couple of old friends who were there to reflect on Jim’s influence.

One of them was Bill Schafer, a longtime contributor to Classic Trains and Trains, and himself a retired senior executive in the NS strategic planning office. “We’ll never see the likes of him again in our lifetime,” says Bill. “At the memorial, people recalled a number of his characteristics. His friendship, his ability to find something interesting in a conversation with almost anyone on almost any topic, his intellectual honesty.”

I also heard from Kevin McKinney, a veteran in transportation logistics and also founder of Passenger Train Journal. Kevin was my boss back in the 1970s when I edited PTJ, along with my colleague at the time, Mike Schafer. Like many, McKinney treasured Jim’s passion for railroading. “He was proof that a love of trains is a positive, helpful thing, and that being a ‘train guy’ is something the industry should celebrate, not scorn.”

Jim’s love of trains wasn’t just forward-looking. He was a passionate student of railroad history, and I believe his understanding of it informed nearly every decision he made and every piece of advice he gave. Writer Rush Loving recognized this in his marvelous book, The Men Who Loved Trains (IU Press, 2006). 

As Loving wrote: “The same day the Soviet Union disclosed it had sent Sputnik, the first satellite, up into space, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad announced it was discontinuing all its passenger trains north of Baltimore. ‘I thought it was worse news than the fact that the Russians were first in space,’ said McClellan. The B&O’s announcement symbolized much of McClellan’s adult life.”

I witnessed Jim’s command of railroad history many times over the years, beginning with my first encounter with him in September 1974 aboard the inaugural run of Amtrak’s Blue Water in Michigan. I was a young eavesdropper, eager to listen in on a lot of pithy insights Jim offered as our train made its way from Chicago to Port Huron. Years later, when I was at Trains, he had become a highly prized source who’d tell the real story when no one else would.

All of that was prelude to what happened one day in the Trains office in late October 1994. Frankly, I was reeling from the announcement that Norfolk Southern had decided to abandon its steam program. For someone who’d enjoyed hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles behind 4501, 610, 2839, 611 and 1218, the news was terribly sad.

The Kalmbach receptionist was on the other end when I my phone rang. “I have a Jim McClellan from Norfolk Southern on the line. Can I put him through?” Talk about a surprise. I probably could have expected to hear from someone at NS public affairs, but a call from the company’s strategic-planning guru was puzzling.

After the usual collegial pleasantries, Jim got right to the point. “I want to give you and Trains more background about the company’s decision on the steam engines,” he said. “OK,” I responded, and reached for a pen and a notebook.

“No, no, you don’t understand, Kevin. I want to come out and talk about it in person. Maybe this Sunday? Any chance we can do that?”

Was he kidding? “Certainly,” I told him.

He added, “Mr. Goode is sending me.” That would be David Goode, then the newly installed chairman and CEO of NS.

Flattered that NS would think enough of our little magazine to send a high-ranking envoy, I quickly made arrangements. Jim simply added a Milwaukee stop to the front end of a business trip.

So it was that on a dark, cold Sunday night in November, I picked Jim up at his downtown Milwaukee hotel and went looking for a quiet restaurant. We decided on Mimma’s, now closed but in those days an excellent Italian place on Brady Street, one of the city’s best-preserved ethnic streetscapes. The maître d’ found us a cozy table in a window overlooking the sidewalk.

What followed was one of the most delightful evenings of my life. Jim and I quickly disposed of the official item of business. I assured him that Trains wasn’t going to bash Norfolk Southern for making a perfectly rational decision. Cold-hearted as the shutdown seemed (and Jim as much as agreed with that), I couldn’t see us publicly excoriating a commercial enterprise that had given the public nearly 30 years of good times. That wasn’t what they were in business for.

Then we quickly moved on, Jim with his wine, me with a couple of bottles of Peroni, both of us with plates full of Mimma’s handmade pasta. My companion was quite the raconteur, and while I didn’t take notes, I remember a long evening of storytelling, mainly by him, on subjects ranging from New York Central to Al Perlman to Bill Brosnan to the early days of Amtrak. I recall that he was especially excited about Norfolk Southern’s new Thoroughbred shortline program. I could have listened far into the wee hours.

Late that evening, as I dropped Jim off at his hotel, I reassured him that his visit was a success. Not in the sense that we at Trains had been co-opted. I don’t think for a moment that was his intent, nor the railroad’s. It was more that we both saw things the same way, however regrettable the situation may have been.

Now, 22 years later, I’ve concluded that David Goode had very little to do with Jim’s visit. Oh, the chairman certainly sanctioned the trip. But in the end I think it was Jim himself who thought it was necessary, and probably sold it to his boss. Jim was the proverbial walking encyclopedia of railroad history and mindful of Trains’ long ties to NS and the early steam program at Southern. As a fan of David P. Morgan, of course he had read the editor’s countless commentaries and stories about 4501 and W. Graham Claytor. I’m sure Morgan’s Locomotive 4501 was in the McClellan library.

No, for Jim McClellan this trip wasn’t about conducting effective corporate PR. It was about understanding and respecting the past, something Jim kept in mind every time he helped make the decisions that changed railroading.  


This is the first entry in my new blog “Mileposts,” a companion to my column in Classic Trains magazine. I’m grateful to Editor Rob McGonigal for making it possible for me to come back to a wonderful magazine we both helped create 17 years ago. I’ll be writing in this space at least once a week, and occasionally more often. I hope you’ll join me from time to time in the Comments section. I welcome your feedback! — KPK



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