Books for a summer afternoon

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, August 01, 2019

First on my summer reading list is a biography of controversial railroad boss E. Hunter Harrison, the prophet of Precision Schedule Railroading.
I don’t know if I read more books during the summer, but I seem to. Some of that’s because our front porch is such a relaxing place to curl up with something new. Some of it is simply the rite of the “summer reading list,” shared by millions.

This summer is no exception, and it’s been a good one, books-wise. Two I especially enjoyed over the past couple of weeks are Reckless Daughter, an unconventional biography of singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, by David Yaffe; and Blood and Fears, a riveting new account of the Eighth Air Force during World War II, by Kevin Wilson.

But man cannot live on non-railroad books alone. Not this man, anyway. So I’ve worked three railroad titles into the mix this season. The first was Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison (Page Two, 2018), written by Howard Green, a Canadian broadcaster and business journalist. The book created a lot of buzz in the railroad community when released a few months ago. 

I approached the Harrison biography a bit like you might approach taking your castor oil. I felt like I should read it for my own good — to better understand the man who so recently had shaken up railroading — but not because it necessarily would be enjoyable. I suppose my attitude had been warped after reading so much anti-EHH vitriol on social media.

I was pleasantly surprised. Not because I became a convert to Harrison’s religion of Precision Scheduled Railroading, but I was struck by Harrison’s personal story: his steady, relentless rise to the top at Illinois Central, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and CSX, in spite of his coarse personality and mercurial management style.  

It helped that the author is an exhaustive researcher and interviewer. Green is a workmanlike writer, but I was impressed by the intimacy of his portrait, especially concerning Harrison’s relationship with his long-suffering but supportive family and his almost Shakespearean race against death. Green’s empathy helps make up for his obvious lack of railroad knowledge and his conference-room PowerPoint grasp of Harrison’s operating strategy. 

And what did I conclude about Precision Scheduled Railroading? I’m not sure, to be honest with you. Its value to shareholders — make that the big shareholders — is impressive, but that’s an easy judgment to make if you’re not one of the thousands of railroaders caught up in Harrison’s slash-and-burn campaigns. More than anything, I came away thinking of PSR as a philosophy any green MBA graduate can write on a Post-It note: control costs, streamline fixed assets, and cultivate discipline. Is that rocket science?

Dick Perry's 1966 book offers a 'highly fictionalized but completely believable narrative about life inside NYC’s Riverside roundhouse in Cincinnati.'
After Harrison, I wanted something more fun, and I found it in a book I’d been meaning to read for more than 50 years: The Roundhouse, Paradise, and Mr. Pickering, a delightful short novel by Dick Perry, published by Doubleday in 1966. The book is currently unavailable on Amazon, and may be difficult to find elsewhere other than libraries. I read the Kalmbach library’s copy. I recall reading the review in the September 1966 issue of Trains, in which Charlie Castner described the book as “hilariously nostalgic.” 

It was the worth the wait. Author Perry, the son of a New York Central locomotive engineer and a noted Ohio writer, created a highly fictionalized but completely believable narrative about life inside NYC’s Riverside roundhouse in Cincinnati, focusing on the misadventures of a memorably nutty cast of characters who worked the third trick. 

The story of the young apprentice who wants to go to college and the dissolute old machinist who takes him under his wing is by turns funny and sad, and Perry treats them with tenderness. He also knows his railroading, reflected in delightful passages such as this, describing where the story’s hero, “the kid,” worked:

“Third-trick men didn’t work in the deadhouse. They worked in the twenty-stall part of the roundhouse. There, impatient for the main line, steam riling their iron bellies, locomotives dashed in and out for running repairs. These locomotives endured human tinkering as a man in good health endures an examining physician. They wished only to be serviced quickly and be gone, to feel the pish-pish-pish of the rod-cup gun and the tap-tap-tap of the inspector’s hammer — and no nonsense.”

If you’ve never been in a working roundhouse in the days of steam, Dick Perry will put you there. 

'Exhibit A in the case for the universal appeal of steam': a tale of a British engineer and fireman and their relationship with an extraordinary 4-6-2.
Nearly the same could be said for another terrific book, one that can stand as Exhibit A in the case for the universal appeal of steam: 2750: Legend of a Locomotive, a book published in 1953 by British writer H. C. Webster and recently released in a new edition by John Broadley, whose website provides information on ordering the book. The book was recommended to me by my friends Peter Mosse and Al Louer. 

Like the NYC book, author Webster created a narrative of fictional characters set in a highly accurate and credible railroad world, specifically the London & North Eastern of the 1930s. He focuses on two compelling railroaders — engine driver Robert Eldridge and his fireman and foil, John Clarke — and their relationship with a special locomotive, apple-green 4-6-2 No. 2750, a member of the celebrated A3 class of Sir Nigel Gresley-designed Pacifics. 

Author Webster can scarcely hide his admiration for the 2750, “one of those creations of man which by a happy combination of design and workmanship and good fortune are so outstanding in performance and so sweet to handle that they become a legend. As Cutty Sark or Flying Cloud among ships, so Twenty-Seven Fifty among locomotives.”

I found it difficult to put the book down as Eldridge and Clarke set about testing and running the 2750. You’ll thrill to the descriptions of the crew as they beat the timetable with the Yorkshire Pullman or Queen of Scots. Along the way they encounter all manner of challenges and mishaps, from hauling a train far heavier than 2750’s rating to suffering a deadly stall in a tunnel, from pushing the 2750 to beyond the century mark to watching her limp off to an uncertain future.

American readers will have to get used to such terms as regulators, vacuum brakes, footplates, and the “right away” signal (highball), but Webster’s wonderfully wrought context makes it all easy to understand. The author is skilled at weaving technology and operations into the story without bogging it down, supported by a slew of very helpful illustrations, profiles, and maps by R. Barnard Way.

As I said, it’s been a good summer out on the front porch, and there’s still time for more books. Meanwhile, I recommend all three of these without hesitation.

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