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Clarence Gooden's classy exit

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, April 21, 2017

I am going to miss Clarence Gooden. Clarence retired as CSX president in March, in anticipation of Hunter Harrison’s arrival at that railroad. I’ve never actually met the man, although we did spend 28 hours close to one another one time. I guess I should explain. I had been slipped aboard a BNSF Railway-CSX test train run in 2002 from Los Angeles to Little Ferry, N.J., to judge the feasibility of taking a day off United Parcel Service cross-country deliveries. The tale of that adventure can be found in the February 2003 issue of Trains (“Fastest Freight in America”). I wasn’t really supposed to be on the train, but I had a friend and became the invisible man. When CSX people boarded the business cars attached to the train in Kansas City for the last half of the trip (over CSX east of Chicago), I made myself scarce. I figured that if Clarence knew an evil journalist was in his midst, he’d kick me off the train. But though I made sure we never spoke to each other those 28 hours, I was utterly charmed by Clarence Gooden. He was simply the funniest person I’ve ever been around. Clarence was head of sales at CSX then, and I can understand why. He could sell the Brooklyn Bridge ten times to the same buyer.

More recently, quite by accident, I discovered another side of Clarence Gooden—the poet. I found his online blog, to be exact. To read it yourself, go here. It blew my mind. Can you imagine any other Class I railroad president or chief exec writing a blog—Rob Krebs, Keith Creel, Dick Davidson, Lance Fritz, Michael Ward or even Hunter? No, you would be laughed off the Association of American Railroads board for being soft-headed. Yet here was the blog of Clarence Gooden.

The postings seem to have begun in July of 2015. The early ones read like CSX news releases. But it becomes apparent that Clarence really got into his avocation. He writes about the history of railroading, the best train trips in the world, and even railroad slang. The most recent entry appears to be January of 2016. Clarence, please don’t leave us like this—keep writing.

And finally, I am going to miss Clarence Gooden because of the classy way he departed CSX. He may not have wanted to go just the way and time he did, but he said goodbye to his colleagues with head held high, a smile across his face, and love in his heart. Someone sent me a transcript of the extemporaneous talk he delivered a day or so before his retirement.

He began by saying he had gone through three transformational experiences in his 47 years with CSX and its predecessors. First was the merger of Family Lines and Chessie System that resulted in CSX. He was a trainmaster at the time and claims not to have understood its implications. Next, the purchase of half of Conrail in 1997. Even Pete Carpenter, the president of CSX, had been kept in the dark on this deal by chief executive John Snow. The third seismic event was the announcement on January 19 that investor Paul Hilal and Harrison were moving to take over the front office at CSX.  

Then Clarence turned to the future. Today, railroads are judged by their operating ratio. But low operating ratios will be harder to sustain as railroads move away from coal and into intermodal-based networks. He predicts one-person crews once positive train control is implemented, and automated, roll-by inspection of trains rather than standing inspections in yards. Such changes as these, along with fuel optimizers on locomotives, will result in significant reductions in the two biggest expenses railroads incur, people and fuel.

While fewer people will be needed in times to come, he believes younger employees today are more open to communication among each other and more receptive to nurturing by people they report to. Clarence encouraged his colleagues to embrace younger railroaders and instill good values in them.

Finally, he dismissed the notion that Hunter Harrison will come to CSX and destroy the company. CSX in some form or another has been around almost 200 years, he said, and will survive. Our railroads, he added, are a national treasure. Every time they are overregulated, they fail. Some way must be found to preserve the industry, by allowing the free market to work, so that railroads can earn the money necessary to reinvest in their futures. He ended by saying god bless all of those in the room, and god bless America.

Whew. Yes, I will miss Clarence Gooden.—Fred W. Frailey

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