Ed Boyle is a calculated bull in a china shop … with riders on his back.
Norfolk Southern’s vice president of engineering sees a target and he charges full speed. He is only going to hit what he needs to, and shatters the goals that come with it. Those who work with him trust him, and Boyle is humble enough to know he needs those who take direction to be there for him during the ride.
Bulls do not care about what is behind them, only what is in front of them. Boyle, however, is a rare breed. When he was named the first Engineer of the Year for Railway Track & Structures magazine he did what he always does as a professional: When the opportunity is there, appreciate the moment and strike hard. Boyle admitted he has not looked back at his career much. Reflecting is hard to do when you are never standing still. As always, he made the best of it.
“[This interview] gave me an opportunity to think back and reflect some, and that does not happen very often,” Boyle told RT&S. “We are focused on executing today, whether it is what we planned to do, or the latest disaster we need to fight through.”
Boyle was just removing the tape from his fighting hands when we talked in early August. Tropical Storm Isaias had just left its calling card across the eastern U.S., and Boyle was in the thick of it working with his people to make sure Norfolk Southern’s service was not disrupted for very long, if at all.
“That hurricane got through the Carolinas and Virginia and did most of its damage in eastern Pennsylvania, and our folks did a phenomenal job responding quickly to get our railroad opened back up.”
Taking sole credit for a job well done is never top of mind for Boyle … doing what’s best for his people and his company is always his first thought.
“We think about projects and work for tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and one thing I definitely found out in my new role now [as vice president of engineering] is I have to be thinking about where does Norfolk Southern’s engineering department need to be in five, 10, 20 years down the road. We don’t spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror.”
One still needs to take a look at Boyle’s childhood past, if only for a minute. Engineering feats have surrounded him since he could first make out what he was seeing. He grew up in Pittsburgh, a city that serves as a cake topper on the product of man-made marvels. With three rivers surrounding the dwelling, bridges are prominent, and not one of them the same. From a very early age, Boyle knew he wanted to build things, and fiercely compete on the court, field or playground.
“My big interest always has been and always will be sports,” said the diehard Steelers, Pirates and Penguins fan. “Growing up you played every sport possible, whether it was organized or out in the neighborhood.”
Everyone knows the one thing you need to do to succeed in sports is look ahead, see your target, and attack it … like a bull. Boyle has been doing it since a very young age.
His father grew up in a steel mill town in Clairton, Pa., and knew he was not one for the industry, so he joined the Army, went to night school at the University of Pittsburgh, and later started a career with IBM. That kind of dedication was a role model for Boyle, and one thing his dad would always say that stuck is, “if it was easy, anyone could do it.”
His passion for engineering started to take shape in high school. He knew he was not one to be sitting in an office. A standardized test confirmed it.
“I remember taking one of those tests and it came back with the results and it said engineering might be a good fit. So I did a little research. I knew I wanted to be outside and civil engineering seemed to be the right path.
“I really thought I would be building bridges or skyscrapers on the construction side, but with civil engineering you know you can get dirty, you have big equipment and you can see what you did. You can
always see what was accomplished.”
Fittingly, Boyle did not have the opportunity to look back at his high school days. He simply couldn’t, because the day after he graduated he headed to Penn State University so he could be on campus when the engineering program got started.
“Going to Penn State was a fantastic experience. There were a couple of things that really stuck. The first thing is when you are a freshman at a big university and people ask you what your major is and you tell them civil engineering, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, you are pre-business.’ That is pretty motivating because you just want to prove them wrong.”
The second experience that Boyle will always remember is when he took a seat on the first day of his freshman calculus class. It was in a large forum, and there were about 300 students. The professor came out and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Look to your right, look to your left. Only one of you are going to be here in the end.”
“The class started, quizzes came, tests came and you were looking around and kids were dropping like flies. By god, he was right.”
Now and forever
Boyle knew he was in the right place, and made it through the engineering program at Penn State. He had three job offers before he donned the cap and gown. Two were from “well-respected bridge and construction companies” and one was from Norfolk Southern. The Class 1 was on campus recruiting second semester, and liked what it saw in Boyle, who admitted life on the railroad was not even on his radar.
“This was well before Norfolk Southern had a presence in Pennsylvania,” he said. “It sounded like a great opportunity so I decided to give it a shot and figured if it didn’t work out I always had the construction side to fall back on.”
Remember, charging bulls never look back, and so it was only natural for Boyle to take the job running and keep moving forward. He accepted a job as a management trainee in Roanoke, Va., for Norfolk Southern in March 1994, and over the next 25 years he would be promoted 11 times up to his current position of vice president of engineering.
Don McKibben was the division engineer for Norfolk Southern’s Virginia division, and his first impression hit Boyle like that freshman calculus professor at Penn State University.
“Day one he says, ‘You are going to know in six months if this is right for you. You are going to find out quickly if railroading is not what you want to do, or it is going to get into your blood and you are going to do it forever.’”
The choice was forever.
“It’s been a wild ride and I could not even imagine doing something else.”
As a management trainee Boyle would go out and soak in his exposure to track men, machine operators, foreman, and front line supervisors. If they were wearing Norfolk Southern colors, Boyle tapped them for all kinds of knowledge.
The first look at a disaster hit in July 1994, when historic flooding slammed southern Georgia and the railroad was wiped out.
“It was working around the clock for weeks in heat I had never experienced
before. I thought this was normal, but little did I know this was an historic event.”
Boyle’s appreciation for the railroad and knowledge of it grew rapidly that first year, and 13 months after he landed his first position with Norfolk Southern he was notified of a promotion. He was now a track supervisor in Mt. Vernon, Ill. Boyle showed up on a Monday and had flashbacks. The entire territory was underwater. The region was hit with tornadoes and heavy rain. Washouts and downed trees were everywhere. This was Norfolk Southern normal for Boyle.
In December 1995, Boyle was moved over to serve as the track supervisor in Lynchburg, Va. This was not a quick stop. For almost five years Boyle worked the entire territory in Lynchburg, timbering and surfacing 200 miles, laying 24.5 miles of dual rail, upgrading a yard with continuous welded rail and taking on several more projects. It was Boyle’s first taste of being in charge, and it also served as a milestone in his personal life. Boyle would meet his wife, Britta, and the two married in 1998. She has been by his side providing support through it all.
Life was good for Boyle. He was hitting a groove both professionally and personally. In March 2000, he was promoted to assistant division engineer in Roanoke, Va., and he and his wife were there just long enough for both of their children to be born 19 months apart. He reunited with McKibben, who was still the division engineer, and also had the opportunity to work with Tim Drake, who was chief engineer for Norfolk Southern’s eastern region. Boyle was learning from the best.
“Don was an exceptional planner. He knew that division inside and out and he knew where we needed to be focused. With Tim Drake, you learned there were seven days in a work week, there were 1,440 minutes in a day and we were going to find a way to use every one of them to make this railroad better.”
Bigger and better
In just about seven years Boyle was already one of Norfolk Southern’s rising stars, and work just got bigger and more complex.
Boyle became the assistant division engineer in Chicago in February 2003. The grounds were massive, the trains were abundant, and the energy was high. Boyle was the first representative from Norfolk Southern to go to the Windy City following the Conrail acquisition. Derailments happened almost every day, and the Chicago line “was a muddy mess.” Railroad tie, rail, and turnout conditions were poor, and the challenge was to get the system up to Norfolk Southern standards.
The busiest hump yard in the Norfolk Southern network was in Elkhart, Ind., and when Boyle arrived on the scene it was all still jointed rail. Norfolk Southern began a multiyear project to get rail laid and the yard upgraded. The Chicago CREATE project also was getting off the ground. Boyle called his experience from 2003 to 2005 in Chicago as “the wild west of Norfolk Southern.”
In April 2005, the challenge would take a serious turn upward. Boyle was now the division engineer on the Pocahontas Division in West Virginia, where the conditions were at their toughest. Norfolk Southern was pulling out a lot of coal from the Appalachian Mountain region, which was full of steep grades and extreme curves. Boyle called it a true brute force mountain railroad. He had the opportunity to work with Jim Carter, who was then chief engineer of bridges and structures at Norfolk Southern, and the task at hand was how to handle the tunnels and bridges across “The Pocy” main run to double stacks. The Heartland Corridor project is where Boyle helped open up the double stack route across southwest Virginia and all the way through West Virginia.
Norfolk Southern continued to be impressed with Boyle’s progression, and in 2007 it was time to be the chief engineer of line maintenance for the Class 1’s western region, which included the Alabama, Central, Lakes and Illinois divisions. Boyle would work out of Atlanta, where you can find him today with his wife and two children when they are home from college.
Making the right calls became an everyday task for Boyle, who quickly realized just how big Norfolk Southern Railway was and how important it was to have consistent standards to get consistent results across the network. The jobs and projects continued to roll through, whether they were planned or unplanned. Boyle was already familiar with it all, but not on such a grand scale.
“When you have four big divisions spread out there is always something taking place.”
Boyle’s quest of inspecting every piece of track he was in charge of continued, and the western region contained a small yard in Des Moines, Iowa, that he had yet to conquer. It was far off the Norfolk Southern network, but Boyle reached it in 2009, and while there he was informed of a new position he would hold—the assistant general manager of the eastern region in transportation. It was the beginning of a string of unknowns that only strengthened Boyle’s hold regarding Norfolk Southern operations.
The guy in charge
As assistant GM, Boyle worked under the general manager, who was Greg Comstock.
Up to this point Boyle called himself a “track guy,” but this position showed him how Norfolk Southern is a transportation company.
“It gave me an understanding of why we do what we do and what really goes on behind the scenes to make it happen that you don’t see as an engineering guy.”
Now a track guy and a transportation guy, Boyle got the call to be the chief engineer of the eastern region in 2011 before he stepped into unchartered territory once again. In February 2013, Boyle was named Norfolk Southern’s assistant vice president of communications and signals. What Boyle loves about being a civil engineer is you get to see what you are doing. Electrical engineers do not have that luxury.
Norfolk Southern was getting Positive Train Control (PTC) off the ground in 2013, and the communications and signals team was on the front end with all of the design and building for a technology that did not even fully exist yet. People needed to be hired, contractors needed to get on board, and everyone needed to be trained and in place to work seven days a week to construct the wayside PTC infrastructure.
“It was all hands on deck to get this build complete. We also worked with multiple signal design contractors along with our in-house forces to get these plans completed.”
A couple years later, Boyle was named assistant vice president of MW&S in October 2015 and was put in charge of Norfolk Southern’s system-wide track, bridge, program maintenance and maintenance equipment operations.
“We challenged the way we always did things and we became focused on how we improve processes and procedures to drive out costs without sacrificing safety and without sacrificing our operation,” Boyle remarked.
On May 1, 2019, Boyle was named vice president of engineering, and the native Pennsylvanian’s goal is to honor the legacy of the department and those who contributed to it while also moving Norfolk Southern to the next level of excellence.
Two for the books
In just 15 months Boyle has already commanded two monumental moments for Norfolk Southern. The first came late in 2019 when the Grand River Bridge lost its fight against floodwaters in Brunswick, Mo. The Class 1 company lost 270 ft of bridge, and in just 27 days had the track line back up and running trains.
“I can assure you everyone involved in that project will never forget the Grand River bridge restoration. That was one for the books.
“You have 270 ft of bridge at the bottom of the river and you are looking at a hole and the water is overlapping where the bridge should be.”
The second submission to the Norfolk Southern history book was the launching of autonomous track inspection technology mounted on a locomotive in early 2020. Everything was designed and built in-house, and with the pilot program going well there are plans to expand the technology.
However, ask Boyle about the one project he is most proud of, and he points to the entire engineering department.
“There has been a tremendous amount of time spent by many people recruiting, hiring and promoting from within our workforce to get the right people on our team, and even more time has been spent by our leaders teaching, coaching and developing our people to become the top performers they are today.”
The last year has been extremely challenging for everyone in the railroad industry. The COVID-19 pandemic shredded the regular procedures that have been followed for decades.
The task to adjust has taken time and energy to implement, but under Boyle’s leadership, Norfolk Southern’s engineering department always has something left in the tank. An engineering technology and training team, called ET3, was created and is thriving during the pandemic. The goal is for Norfolk Southern’s engineering department to be the most technically advanced and best-trained engineering Class 1 team.
“We have come a long way and we are just getting started,” said Boyle.
The next five to 10 years could be the most challenging for the railroad industry, and for Norfolk Southern as a company.
“Our key is we don’t stand still and make sure we are looking ahead and stay in front of it, not behind it.”
Just like a calculated bull on the hunt.