What would Ben Heineman do?

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, August 6, 2020

Newly installed as Chicago & North Western's president, Ben Heineman (in dark suit) beams with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley at a May 10, 1956, ceremony marking the dieselization of his road's suburban service. C&NW
I’ve been trying to follow the long-running dispute between Metra and the Union Pacific, which operates Metra commuter trains on three of Chicago’s busiest routes. Theirs is a tangle of disagreements involving the two railroads’ operating agreement, the Surface Transportation Board, a federal lawsuit, and, always, who is going to pay for what.

Analysis of this mess is, fortunately for me, not within the purview of a blog for Classic Trains — it’s better left to the people writing for the Trains News Wire. But reading about the dispute had me wondering: what would Ben Heineman think of all this?

For those who need a quick introduction, Heineman was president of the Chicago & North Western in the late 1950s through the 1960s, back when the trains on these same Metra lines proudly wore the green and yellow of C&NW. In its prime, the North Western arguably ran the best commuter railroad in the nation. (Apologies to the Burlington.)

Heineman was a rare railroad executive who understood the liabilities of running commuter trains, realized they couldn’t last forever without transfer to public ownership, and, yet, if obligated, was hell-bent on running the best ones possible. 

Heineman’s accomplishments are legendary. A lawyer by training, he’d established his reputation on the Minneapolis & St. Louis — itself a C&NW takeover target in 1960 — and arrived at the North Western on April 1, 1956, presiding over the final push for dieselization; the last C&NW steamer ran just over a month after he arrived, a media moment Heineman basked in. He later invested heavily in new rolling stock, taking a cue from Burlington’s revolutionary use of bi-level gallery cars. 

Most notable of all, Heineman pioneered the use of push-pull technology, with his diesels pushing trains into North Western Station on Madison Street in the morning and pulling them out to Geneva, Harvard, and Kenosha in the evening.

Heineman presided over a renaissance of C&NW suburban service in the 1950s and '60s. Felt-hatted commuters get into position to board their train of new bi-level, push-pull cars at Glencoe on C&NW's North Line to Kenosha, Wis. C&NW
The fact that it all worked well is borne out by the astounding fact that, for a handful of years, C&NW ran its commuter trains in the black: in 1965, the service generated a net income of $1,387,000. The North Western was helped along by the fact that parallel Chicago Aurora & Elgin and North Shore electric lines gradually went out of business, the CA&E in 1957 and the North Shore in 1963.

So complete was North Western’s transformation that it’s easy to forget just how bad the trains were before Heineman showed up. For some expert perspective, I checked in with H. Roger Grant, professor of history at Clemson University and author of the definitive book The North Western: A History of the Chicago & North Western Railway System (Northern Illinois University Press, 1996). 

As Grant told me, in the immediate postwar period riders were complaining bitterly about the operation, especially the equipment. “A veteran commuter recalled that crew members still lighted gas lamps in coaches on the Milwaukee Division,” Grant says. “Another compared the service to ‘an alcoholic duchess expiring on Skid Row, still attired in silks and tiara.’ One executive put it bluntly, ‘We ran the world’s worst commuter service.’”

Heineman couldn’t turn it around in a day. After getting rid of steam, his next step in 1958 was to win state regulatory approval to modernize ticketing and fare collection, adjust rates, and revise schedules for better equipment utilization. With that accomplished, he went after the rolling stock, building the bi-level fleet piece by piece. In the end, the C&NW invested approximately $27 million in new cars and ultimately boasted what it called “the finest and most modern suburban service in the world.”

In Grant’s analysis, one of Heineman’s key insights was recognizing the North Western’s role in facilitating the growth of suburbs. His strategy was to serve Barrington and Geneva and Lake Forest, not the city of Chicago.

In 1969, North Western bi-level trains glide above the Kennedy Expressway in downtown Chicago, their riders untroubled by the heavy traffic below them. C&NW
“Onlookers thought that Heineman took a big gamble, but he realized that there were forces working toward making suburban service profitable, or at least greatly reducing costs,” says Grant. “The region served by the C&NW was growing rapidly, in part spurred by ‘white flight’ from Chicago. It should be noted that the company closed more than 20 close-in stations, meaning that those commuters needed to rely on public or alternative transportation.”

The result was what Heineman would call “true” commuter service. “We don’t want to run a streetcar type of operation,” he said.

Heineman famously recognized that many of the people on his trains were more than simply a bunch of commuters. “Heineman wanted to impress business executive riders, especially North Shore bankers and stockbrokers,” Grant explains. “Excellent equipment and on-time schedules demonstrated that Heineman and his associates were truly progressive. The C&NW was no Rock Island!”

That burnished reputation helped years later when, in 1968, Heineman organized the holding company Northwest Industries, which spun off the railroad to employee ownership in 1972. Larry Provo took over as president. Heineman stayed on with Northwest Industries, whose portfolio went far beyond railroading to include underwear, boots, and chemicals. Heineman died in 2012 at age 98 after a life filled with accomplishment. 

It’s impossible to know whether, deep down, Ben Heineman really cared about running good commuter trains, or if it was just a means toward an end. Were he around today he might actually sympathize with Union Pacific in its dispute with Metra. In the end, he was a corporate executive, his eye constantly on the bottom line and the value of C&NW stock.

“If Ben Heineman were at the throttle of the UP today, he would be a tough and skilled negotiator with Metra,” says Grant. “He was one of the best railroad executives of the 20th century. He made mistakes, but he did much to ‘save’ the C&NW and ultimately to make possible the sale to the Union Pacific decades later.”

Not something the 102,600 daily (pre-COVID) riders on Metra’s UP West, UP Northwest, and UP North lines are likely to think about, but they all have a debt to Ben Heineman. 

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