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Hunter Harrison – the ‘Train Whisperer'

by Lou Smyrlis

Hunter Harrison, will long be remembered as the gruff, straight shooting American whose innovative ideas and controversial approach reshaped Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways over the past two decades. But what was the industry icon really about?

On a wintry February night Canadian author Howard Green treated transportation professionals gathered at the Islington Golf Club to insights gleaned from his years of behind the scenes access to the railroad executive known as the “train whisperer”. Many of those insights are included in Green’s new book: Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison.

“It was a difficult book to write. Hunter was an intense guy. He would get in your face. But he had the knowledge and a relentless passion and he knew how to make the railroad assets sweat. He was a ‘train whisperer’ although with his booming voice I don’t think he ever whispered,” Green told the crowd.

Harrison began his railroad career in 1964 as a 19-year old rail car oiler for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway. From that very modest beginning he strung together a career that at the time of his death in December 2017 at age 73 included serving as the chief executive of four major railroads: Illinois Central Railroad, Canadian National Railway, Canadian Pacific Railway and CSX Corp.

He was able to revive three railways, including Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railway, but his no-nonsense approach regarding layoffs and inefficiencies also brought him into confrontation with unions and customers.

“There was thunder and lightning everywhere he went. He was a hard man to work for but he wanted the best,” Green said. “…He had a very deep need to prove himself. He was never satisfied and that was manifested in the way he ran the railroad.”

Harrison’s “Hunter Camps”, where he would speak for five to six hours straight with no notes in an attempt to change the culture of organizations whose cultures could be traced back to their start in the 1800s, became industry legend and part and parcel of his intense focus on efficiency in every part of the business. That could involve a decision as large as moving CP’s head office from downtown Calgary to the Ogden railyard to visiting the mailroom because he believed it was a place that sent profound signals about whether a company was run efficiently.

But Green said that despite his demanding management style, the Hunter Harrison he came to know over the years had another side, not often seen.

“For a guy who was very tough, nobody bruised like Hunter Harrison…It’s very hard to go in day after day and do the unpopular thing. I do think it took a piece out of him emotionally."