November NRC column: My heroes have always been railroaders

Written by Jim Hansen
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NRC Chairman Jim Hansen

No one advances in their career without some inspiration and help from others along the way.

During the past 44 years, I have had a great vantage point to observe and interact with some true railroad engineering giants. These gentlemen revolutionized our industry and, whether they intended to or not, propelled me to achieve far more than I would on my own steam.

In this time of Thanksgiving, I am filled with gratitude and humbled to introduce you to a few of my railroad heroes.

Roy Brawner was the former regional engineer with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) and the northern-southern maintenance engineer post-merger with the Burlington Northern (BN). He lived and breathed the railroad. As a young BN welder, and later when I called on him as a supplier, Roy made a big impression. An industry icon and a perfect gentleman, he commanded respect amongst his fellow engineers and others who recognized his authority, expertise, and commitment.

Bill Glavin, former BN vice president of engineering, ushered in an era of modern railroad engineering practices after deregulation. He put together teams that were synonymous with railroading engineering excellence. Bill’s BN staff members—such as Steve Millsap, Mike Armstrong, Darrell Cantrell, and Marvin Keske—played significant roles in my professional development. A beautiful and generous individual, Bill elevated the contributions of everyone around him.

Doug McFarlane, former Canadian Pacific (CP) senior vice president of U.S. operations, was on the forefront of implementing precision scheduled railroading (PRS) practices during Hunter Harrison’s tenure. Watching how he worked with his own people and with others, I wanted to emulate his leadership style. He built trust across the railroad that helped to transform CP into a lean, mean version of itself and a world-class operating railroad.

Dale Ophardt, former CSX assistant vice president of engineering structures, design, and construction, is world-class, both as an engineer and a human being. Watching Dale in action, I marveled at how he instituted high engineering standards and a respectful work environment among his people as well as with suppliers. A strong communicator, Dale taught me and others on the supply side how to better meet the needs of the Class 1 market.

Bob Stevens is a true boots-on-the ground railroad engineer. Through his work as a former engineering leader with Conrail and CSX and a now-retired vice president and chief engineering officer at Florida East Coast Holdings (FEC), Bob built strong rail systems in times of tremendous growth. His crowning achievement was developing the FEC into a railroad with Class 1 standards and performance.

Phil Merilli, former Norfolk Southern vice president of engineering, established a big footprint in the industry. Known for his brilliant mind and engineering expertise, Phil leveraged all of his assets and a strong team to deliver more with less. More than anyone else I know, Phil had a presence that prompted uncompromising respect from his staff and from the railroad community. 

The enduring legacy of these gentlemen is not simply the railroad infrastructure they built and maintained, but also the industry professionals they developed. These leaders helped shape generations of professionals who are now directing railway operations across North America.

I hope you will join us Jan. 5-8, 2022, in Phoenix. The NRC website has all the details to attend:

“Building a safer and stronger railway construction industry together!”

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