You say potAto, I say potOto

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, May 08, 2019

The voice on the other end of the phone was that of the editor of my column in Trains, and she was incredulous. “Fred, how could you do this?” she asked. “Don’t you know what this man did to Wisconsin Central?” The man in question was Hunter Harrison, who had retired several years earlier after a decade at Canadian National, which he had profoundly changed (for the better, I thought). Now he was the hired gun of a hedge fund trying to seize control of Canadian Pacific in a proxy fight. I had sent in a column saying Hunter would be a far better choice as CEO of Canadian Pacific than the nice but ineffectual incumbent, Fred Green. In the fraternity of railfans, I was again being the contrarian, and my editor was upset, almost angry.

We worked it out, as I knew we would. The column ran as written. Hunter’s side prevailed, approximately nine to one, in a vote of shareholders, and Canadian Pacific too was profoundly changed, ultimately for the better.

I have this habit—I’m not sure it’s a good one, but nonetheless it reflects my nature—of sniffing out the prevailing wisdom and bending my mind against it. I just can’t help myself, actually.

The first instance that comes to mind occurred in the late 1950s, before I grew whiskers. On January 1, 1957, Bill Deramus arrived at the nearly bankrupt Katy from Chicago Great Western  and proceeded to break china. (He discovered, I learned much later, that the prior administration had already spent the money budgeted for the first two months of 1957.) Off went most of the passenger trains as quickly as he could get it done. He secretly emptied the St. Louis headquarters over a weekend and moved the jobs he wanted kept to Texas. I cannot describe today how hated this man became (and remained half a century later, in death).

I didn’t know what to think. To be honest, I waited to see what the editor of Trains, David Morgan, would say. Morgan later penned a feature story that largely praised what Deramus had done under trying conditions. My point is that I learned that the crowd is not necessarily right.

Oh, and much, much later I spent most of an afternoon with Deramus. He had not grown horns.

Hunter Harrison was just as polarizing a figure in railroading. In case you don’t know, what he did to Wisconsin Central was buy it and fold it into Canadian National. WC was known for great customer service, particularly to the Wisconsin paper mills. Hunter had little interest in Wisconsin paper mills but a lot of interest in cobbling together a direct CN route from Winnipeg to Chicago, and this is what WC gave him—a brilliant move, too. Frankly, I loved the guy, not least because like me he grew up in the South and had mannerisms that appealed to me. It helped that he was also smarter than most people took him for.

One more example: Amtrak’s Richard Anderson, or Delta Dick. With Hunter Harrison now in Valhalla, Anderson is easily America’s most hated railroader. I have friends who become apoplectic at the mention of his name. My blog would be read a lot more if I joined the crowd, but I can’t do it. He’s largely doing what I would, although ham-handedly at times (I’m thinking of the Southwest Chief). So I watch and wait and sometimes offer my advice publicly in print, which of course he ignores.

I’m not always right. I thought a lot of Anderson’s predecessor Joe Boardman, once writing that history would deem him one of Amtrak’s best leaders. Now I think he was no better than ordinary. Going back in time, I held up John Reed as the epitome of railroad leadership (so did the crowd), but he was not. Reed’s flaw was an almost deathly fear of doing anything that would affect his beloved Santa Fe Railway’s identity, this at a time when railroads all around him were merging. So when Missouri Pacific's Downing Jenks in late 1979 almost begged Reed to buy his railroad--a marriage made in heaven--Reed fiddled and let MoPac slip into Union Pacific's pocket. To his credit, Reed later confessed it was the biggest blooper of his railroad career.

Now I’m an old fellow, soon to leave the stage. But if I’m still around in a few years, I wonder which windmill I will be jousting. PotAto, potOto, it’s all about attitude, and attitude is the starting point for earnest discussion, which we have a lot of at this venue. Please chime in.—Fred W. Frailey

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