Remembering Mr. Johnston

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, March 11, 2017

I'm sitting in my room on the Auto Train, waiting to leave Lorton in Virginia, and struggling to come up with a single word that applies collectively to the chief executives of the seven Class I railroads. The best I can do is "uninspiring." Yes, Hunter Harrison makes good copy for writers such as myself. But these guys all lack something. Call it pride in the companies they captain, in how their railroads are esteemed by the public, in how their fellow employees take their jobs seriously. Gosh, couldn't at least one of them be even a bit like Wayne Johnston? What follows is excerpted from the second edition of my book "Twilight of the Great Trains."

Wayne A. Johnston was old school--real old school. From his office on the northeast corner of the sixth floor overlooking venerable Central Station in Chicago, he could gaze directly down at the passenger trains of his beloved Illinois Central. He had the habit of doing so at precisely 9 o'clock each morning, after pulling a pocket watch from the vest wrapped around his ample midsection. If the Illinois Central president could see the brown-and-orange locomotives of his beloved No. 6 poking from the train shed, all was well, and he sat down satisfied. Otherwise, he'd punch the intercom on his desk and bellow to Otto Zimmerman, his vice president of operations, "Zim, where's the Panama?" Says someone who witnessed this scene: "Zim would do anything not to get that call."

Johnston cherished his passenger trains so much that from 1959 until 1967, after he relinquished the presidency to become chairman, the railroad shed only a single branch line passenger train--that's all. That IC stood pat so long is amazing, the more so because Johnston's background was as an accountant. Told that coaches needed to be added to the all-sleeping car Panama Limited because the train was hemmoraging millions of dollars a year, Johnston replied that he liked it just fine as it was, adding that the negative numbers were surely overstated. He was among the railroad's largest shareholders, and in the scheme of things the Panama was small potatoes to him.

His successor as president come 1966, Bill Johnson, had some affection for passenger trains, too. He came to IC from Railway Express Agency, which he had nursed through bankruptcy and back to profitability. But Johnson soon realized he needed help with the passenger service. In mid 1967 he lured Paul Reistrup to IC from Baltimore & Ohio and Chesapeake & Ohio, on the basis of Reistrup's reputation for aggressively shedding of some passenger trains while still maintaining high standards of service on those that remained. Reistrup resisted the lucrative offer, knowing that the passenger side of railroading was a career killer. Only when he and Johnson agreed on an 18-month assignment as director of passenger services did Reistrup relent.

So the scene was set for big changes. Wayne Johnston did not live to see them. On Thursday, November 30, 1967, hundreds of civic leaders honored him at a dinner in the Palmer House. The next day was his last as chairman of Illinois Central. Late the following Monday afternoon, he sat down in his easy chair at home to read the Wall Street Journal. That's how his housekeeper found him the next morning.

End of excerpt. Wayne Johnston was no fool. He well knew the difference between a paper loss from passenger service and a real loss. He made sure, as long as he could, that the real, cash loss was zero. That gave him bragging rights for a pro-passenger service that he need never apologize for. And indeed, his passenger trains were his pride and joy. Just as he retired and died, events overwhelmed Johnston and every other pro-passenger railroad executive. My point is this: Here was a guy whose buttons burst off his vest from the pride he had in his railroad's service. Times have changed. Think freight instead of passenger. Who today exhibits this pride, this passion?--Fred W. Frailey

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