Who were the 10 best railroad CEOs? (My turn)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, October 22, 2009

In Part 1, you read the challenge put to the Lexington Group in Transportation History: Name the men who really got it right in railroading the past half century. In Part 2, you read the picks of the moderators of this discussion, David DeBoer and Jim McClellan. Now it’s my turn.

Once again, the rules: Nobody is eligible who left the railroad scene before 1960, or who still runs a railroad.

I think Dave and Jim did an outstanding job framing the environment in which railroading existed in the past 50 years. And for the most part, I like the people they named.

But they forgot about someone who should have been at the top of the list, because he made happen and let happen a slew of practices that are commonplace today but unheard of 30, 40 and 50 years ago.

I’m talking about Ed Ball, the cantankerous, hardheaded, opinionated, gnome-like, five-foot-six chairman of Florida East Coast Railway during its tumultuous transformation from a rundown property to just about the most productive railroad in North America. He presided over FEC almost in his spare time, for $1 a year, because as overseer of the Alfred I. duPont Testamentary Trust he also controlled St. Joe Paper, some of Florida’s biggest banks and a great deal of its land. But it’s for his influence on the railroad that he’ll be remembered most, and not everyone will have pleasant memories.

First of all, he broke the unions’ grip on his Class 1 (at that time) railroad by running his trains right through a bitter, violent strike that began in 1963. Those who came back to work did so on his terms: hourly wages and three-person (later two-person) crews who ran the length of the railroad rather than over just one-third of it.

Other railroads, afraid of the unions, ostracized Florida East Coast for decades. Left to its own devices, it pioneered one revolutionary development after another. Ultimately, the industry ended up embracing virtually all of FEC’s breakthroughs, including those two-person crews and extended crew districts, plus concrete ties, cabooseless trains and rear-end brake-security devices. And it’s because Ed Ball would not be intimidated by anyone that it all came to happen.

Ed Ball died in 1981 at the age of 93. I am not sure I would have liked him had I met him. I do respect what he accomplished. This man belongs on my list.

Now let’s hear from you. Who do you think were the best railroad executives of the past half century?—Fred W. Frailey

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