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VOL. 124 | NO. 190 | Monday, September 28, 2009

CN’s Harrison Yard Elevates Railroad, Memphis

By Eric Smith

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BIGGER PROPORTIONS: After a $100 million renovation, Canadian National Railway Co. renamed its Johnston Yard freight car switching facility after CEO and native Memphian E. Hunter Harrison, who is retiring at year’s end. The overhauled facility has doubled its capacity. -- PHOTO BY ERIC SMITH

E. Hunter Harrison’s railroad legacy was cemented last week when Canadian National Railway Co. renamed its Johnston Yard freight car switching facility after him.

Harrison, a native Memphian and lifelong railroad man whose career began in 1963 as an 18-year-old carman-oiler for the old Frisco Railroad, is retiring after seven years as president and CEO of the Montreal-based railroad, one of the largest in North America.

CN last week honored its outgoing chief by dubbing the facility “Harrison Yard” following a three-year, $100 million renovation of the 433-acre terminal. It was the first major overhaul at the site in 60 years.

Citing the yard’s significance to him personally and professionally, Harrison said it was special to have the facility named after him. His great-grandfather worked at the yard as a “jockey” and lost his leg in an accident in the yard’s early days.

The facility, whose roots date back to the early 1900s, had been named after Wayne Johnston, who served as Illinois Central president from 1945 to 1966. CN eventually bought Illinois Central for $7.5 billion, changing the fortunes of Memphis and Harrison, who said it was a miracle that his 46-year career saw him rise from laborer to top executive.

Though Harrison spoke a lot about where the yard has been and how he wound up being its namesake, he was equally concerned with where it’s headed. The facility will continue to play a critical role in Memphis’ position as one of just three cities with five Class I railroads and one of the most important rail and intermodal hubs in North America.

“This company, this organization, is extremely important to the future of Memphis,” Harrison said. “It has developed the best operating metrics, the best financial metrics of any railroad in the world.”

‘Improve, enhance’

Harrison Yard will help increase efficiency for CN trains moving into and out of Memphis, a key city within the railroad’s North American network.

The modernized facility can handle double the traffic of the old yard with a capacity of more than 3,100 freight cars on 45 tracks in the classification yard. Harrison Yard’s 12 receiving and departing tracks range in length from 5,000 to 10,000 feet and can accommodate more than 35 freight trains each day.

The facility has 459 employees and includes a “manual hump,” which is a method for moving cars around a yard; a classification yard; a receiving yard; a locomotive shop; and a mechanical shop.

MAN OF THE HOUR: E. Hunter Harrison, a native Memphian and lifelong railroad man whose career began in 1963, was honored last week by Canadian National Railway Co. -- PHOTOS BY ERIC SMITH

“These new facilities will only further improve and enhance this gateway as a more prominent distribution center,” Harrison said.

Harrison’s imprint on Memphis, however, isn’t limited to the switching yard. The company under his watch invested $41 million to develop the Intermodal Gateway-Memphis terminal at Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park. The 3,000-acre complex near the Mississippi River south of Downtown Memphis that CN operates with CSX Intermodal opened in 2005.

These investments come at a time when Memphis’ stock is rising as a rail hub. Because of its locale at the crossroads of America, the city is brimming with rail activity.

In addition to CN’s investment here, BNSF Railway Co. is placing the finishing touches on its $200 million expanded intermodal terminal at Lamar Avenue and Shelby Drive in Southeast Memphis. And Norfolk Southern recently announced it will build a $129 million intermodal terminal in nearby Rossville.

Harrison called these moves a testament to the city’s prowess as a major multimodal transportation and distribution hub.

“This gateway is critical to us,” Harrison said. “It has tremendous strategic value. We think Memphis, going forward, is going to play a vital and larger role than it ever has in the past. You should seize that opportunity. This gateway is the gateway to the Southeast and the Southwest.”

Community citizen

CN’s commitment to Memphis can be found outside its switching and intermodal facilities.

The railroad in October donated $1 million to launch the “CN-E. Hunter Harrison Center for Intermodal Safety and Emergency Preparedness” at the University of Memphis’ Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute. It also donated $1 million to Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center.

Harrison said forging partnerships is an important component of becoming a part of the community, especially for a company that is still building a brand in the U.S.

“Canadian National is not a common name in Illinois or Memphis,” Harrison said. “But now as we establish our presence down here as CN, it’s been very helpful. We’ve done a lot to give back to all communities, but particularly trying to improve our presence in the U.S. so people can identify us.”

B. Lee Mallory, honorary consul for Canada and executive vice president at Mallory Alexander International Logistics, lauded Harrison’s commitment to the city by creating the intermodal safety center as well as beefing up CN’s presence here as rail becomes a more important player in the national economy.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a friend running the railroad,” Mallory said.

Meeting along the ‘Y’

Dexter Muller, senior vice president for community development at the Greater Memphis Chamber and head of the Regional Logistics Council, talked about the importance of Harrison’s tenure with CN as it related to Memphis.

Muller credited Harrison with overseeing the railroad’s growth on the Pacific Coast with the Canadian ports of Prince Rupert and Vancouver, the Atlantic Coast with the port of Halifax and the Gulf Coast with the port of New Orleans.

CN’s network forms a huge “Y” across North America, giving the railroad excellent connectivity with major markets and other modes of transportation.

“He’s got a three-coast strategy, trying to cover all your bases so that regardless of where the world grows, you’re positioned to serve it,” Muller said. “If South America grows, the Gulf Coast builds up. If Asia grows, you’ve got Prince Rupert. If Europe grows, you’ve got Halifax. That’s a pretty damn smart strategy.”

Also, the railroad’s acquisition of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co., a rail line that bypasses Chicago, will enhance Memphis’ position within CN’s network by shortening travel time from port cities to Memphis.

All of this is coming at a time when railroads are investing more in their networks because of rising demand. That is partly because of the environmental consideration, since trains travel farther than trucks on a gallon of diesel fuel and emit fewer greenhouse gases.

These trends point to increased opportunities for Memphis, something that’s crucial as the city works to develop a long-range transportation and economic development plan.

“The more important railroads are,” Muller said, “the better advantage Memphis is going to have.”

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