TRAIN in Vain

Timing is everythingas the death of now-former CSX CEO Hunter Harrison illustrates.

Harrison died Saturday, due to “unexpectedly severe complications from a recent illness,” days after taking medical leave.

If you’re going to pick a time of year to kick the bucket, this would be it. News publications are pumping out the holiday cheer, everyone’s either on vacation or thinking about it, and your obituaries won’t take a look at the destructive legacy of your last stop—especially since the person pushing the copy live is probably hungover from the holiday party.

However, that legacy—specifically regarding the local CSX, which Harrison eviscerated in recent months-deserves a real examination.

Early in the year, Harrison came in amidst shareholder optimism and employee trepidation.

The Wall Street Journal pushed out the news that Harrison was coming in to work his turnaround magic on CSX; shares jumped up 40 percent, per Forbes, which made the case in lauding his hiring that CSX was “stagnating … one of the least efficient railroads in North America.”

The pot was sweetened to bring Harrison in; an option to buy 9 million shares at market price, and an incredible $84 (EIGHTY F-N FOUR) million dollars.

There may have been indications that Harrison wasn’t exactly at the peak of health. Exhibit A: His ever-present oxygen tank, which would have been an accessory to the Hunter Harrison action figure, had such a thing been made. Exhibit B: Rambling, long meetings with senior staff, which one person described as “imagine Donald Trump leading a railroad.”

Harrison, of course, came in and immediately began implementing what he called “precision railroading … a model proven to improve safety, create better service for customers, produce a proud and winning culture for employees, and generate exceptional, lasting value for shareholders.”

In other words: “Make CSX Great Again!”

How did it go?

Spoiler alert: Whoops!

The layoffs started locally last winter, a bloodletting of the very management positions that would have been necessary to implement said precision railroading.

Over 1,000 people were dumped in Jacksonville alone as cuts were also made throughout the company, including such non-essential workers as dudes in switching yards in Chicago.

Harrison talked about this in July, per the Florida TimesUnion, at which point 2,300 people had been cut.

“I thought we had a hell of a quarter,” Harrison said.

This “hell of a quarter” included taking 900 locomotives and 60,000 freight cars out of commission. And eliminating all but one dispatching station in a 23-state territory, because, after all, what can possibly go wrong? And shutting down most of the company’s 12 railyards.

By the time summer was all but a wrap, congress wanted to know more about this amazing turnaround effort.

Why? NBD, just “chronic service failures” (as the Rail Customer Coalition put it).

“As has been widely reported, there are chronic service failures occurring across the CSX network which are impacting the entire North American rail network,” the August letter said, per the TU. “Major service changes have been imposed with little advance notice, and CSX’s response to customer complaints has been woefully inadequate.”

Harrison’s response? “Since coalitions do not have service issues, we do not intend to continue a discussion with you about the service we provide to our customers.”

Translation: GFY.

So-called “extensive delays and communications breakdowns” led to CSX having to explain itself to the Surface Transportation Board in the fall.

And STB was not happy, as a letter dated Dec. 14 showed.

“The Board continues to hear complaints related to CSX service challenges or inadequate service, particularly about unsatisfactory ‘last mile’ service and lack of communication regarding changes of service before they occur,” the letter read.

Spotlighted in the letter were problems with “car order fulfillment” and a year over year decline in “local service performance … including missed switches and poor on the ground communication and coordination with customers.”

That’s precision railroading!

Never mind the derailments and the accidents that happened last year. We would need a whole other column for that avoidable carnage.

And never mind the way trains just stall out on the tracks-the San Marco Train and Baldwin are frequently criticized, of course, but for some real inaction, you can’t beat the track running parallel to Beaver Street on the Westside. So many citations have been given out in Duval that there is an “arrangement” between CSX and the city’s general counsel, where a few of the citations are paid out, but most are forgotten.

After all, federal law allows trains to block tracks, no matter what locals say about it.

Hunter Harrison: a blithering jackass who got his payout for wrecking a company and then passed on in such a “sudden” way that the obits didn’t look at his true legacy of destruction of one of Jacksonville’s cornerstone companies.