The meaning of "My Life With Trains"

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, June 22, 2017

Jim McClellan’s testament—My Life With Trains: Memoir of a Railroader—is out and being distributed by Indiana University Press. I can safely say that it is the railroad publishing event of the year. But I am biased, because I had a hand in its final stages of production after Jim’s death last autumn and read it cover to cover, several times.

I was taken by the comments made to friends about My Life With Trains by Jim Blaze, Conrail’s final corporate strategist (and a man of many other accomplishments). Blaze fought McClellan when Norfolk Southern tried to buy Conrail in the 1970s and again when CSX tried to walk away with all of Conrail in the 1990s. But the men respected each other and were fast friends. It’s because Blaze knew McClellan so well professionally that his remarks strike me as especially appropriate. A version of what follows was adapted by Blaze as an online review for Railway Age, and you can find its full text here. With that, I turn my podium over to Jim:


“Jim McClellan left us with a detailed description of how difficult it can be to be a leader.

The book isn't about trains or pictures of trains. It's about the challenge of trying to spearhead new thinking about the commerce of railroading amidst mode shift changes and even financial bankruptcy.

It's about his periodic fears of even his best ideas being doubted. About picking his battles and often biding his time. Yes, even about now and then being embarrassed or lost for words in front of his superiors.

His memories share a side most of us never saw—his intellectual self-doubt from time to time. Because most of us that worked with Jim only remember him as being so confident as a railway intellectual leader.

It's about his recognition that sometimes being “corporate lucky” is better than being smarter then the competitor.

It's about his recognition that the CSX network in the 1980-1996 period was superior in route coverage and distances in key markets to that of his Norfolk Southern. And that the relatively poorer NS network in markets like Florida, Chicago, and New York/Northern New Jersey actually handicapped NS in defining an east-west merger option.

Its structural network coverage weakness almost forced Norfolk Southern into a fixed focus decade long pursuit of Conrail as the only way to create an enduring strong NS commercial future. Because anything less then a Conrail better route and better market access strategic plan would likely create a long-term second-tier competitive network outcome for NS.

Corporately, NS leaders couldn't deal with the thought of ending up being a long term 40% market share railroad against a strong network company like UP-CSX-Conrail.

By that admission of weakness, Jim McClellan reveals what continually drove NS to pursue a Conrail option.

That network weakness was often overlooked by those who like myself worked inside Conrail. Most of us saw them as the giant—simply because NS had such a superior financial profile. Inside Conrail, many of us failed to recognize that NS had this “weakness.” NS didn't have a better merger option. And their corporate culture couldn't accept becoming a second-tier survivor during what might be the last merger wave.

McClellan reminds the reader in this, his last memoir, that one of the first principles of corporate wars is to know your enemy . . . and to know yourself. And that it took the shock of a friendly CSX/Conrail deal for Norfolk Southern leadership to come to that conclusion in September of 1996.

In the end, besides being luckily, Norfolk Southern had a very healthy balance sheet. They conquered by waking up to the serious threat, and then were able to outspend CSX and Conrail to win over the Conrail shareholders. They suddenly and unexpectedly became extremely aggressive. Money was no object when long term survival as a top dog was at stake.”

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