“That's the cost of doing business.” — that is the underlying sentiment of people I’ve spoken with in Appalachian coal country about E. Hunter Harrison taking the reins at CSX Transportation.
CSX, you may know, has (or had) an extensive network throughout the region dating back to the C&O, B&O, L&N, and Clinchfield, among others.
And Harrison, as you surely know, has successfully rescued failing railroads and brought them into the black.
And now we wonder what will happen with Hunter in charge of CSX.
People I know who hold CSX stock are pleased with how much its risen in the past few weeks. Those closest to retirement are really happy. And they’re not all that different from New York investors. Really, the deciding factor for shareholders is accountability and they want a return on their investment in the railroad. So for them, Hunter’s arrival is a good thing.
But bringing Hunter in means “Hunterizing” the railroad. To Hunter Harrison (if I understand him correctly) building a successful railroad is less about cost and more on profitability and efficiency. But there is cost to that: his relentless pursuit of profits and efficiency has cost hundreds (maybe thousands?) of railroaders their jobs at other railroads where he has taken control of the executive suite.
CSX crews tell me they expect to run larger trains with more footage and tonnage, with less pulling power and braking control. With Harrison’s cost-cutting measures, CSX crews I spoke with said they feel their working conditions will worsen.
Photographers and railfans said they are concerned that friends and families who work for CSX might be forced to relocate, or worse, be put out of a job. These people feel that Hunter’s recent failed attempt to merge CP and Norfolk Southern will lead to a backdoor attempt at a CSX-Canadian Pacific merger. With the recent change in administration in Washington, some feel Hunter will seek an alternative way to gain control and insert his allies into decision-making positions so railroad mergers can be discussed in a more favorable light.
If you had to boil it down to one theme from these Class I railroaders and friends it would be: “We'll just have to watch and see...he can’t make it worse than it already is, can he? He’s good for business, the investors want it.”
But there’s more to this than doom and gloom. The men and women I spoke with who work for shortline railroads say they’re optimistic that business will increase, or at least they’ll get a more favorable working relationship with CSX with Hunter at the helm.
Among former and current employees who have worked with Hunter, there is a general feeling that short lines will benefit. They tell me that Hunter prefers to keep operations in-house, but he will not take business away from short lines working efficiently with his railroad. So that’s good, right?
As we speculate on the loss of jobs to come, as we point out his previous influence on management of railroads he has managed to turn around leading to rising profits, it seems we are all in agreement that whatever moves Hunter makes now that he's at CSX: “it’s the cost of doing business.”