Nicole James
Former Superintendent, BNSF Railway
Interview Transcript
November 2017

JK: Tell me a little bit about yourself and where you grew up.

NJ: I grew up in Bronson, Iowa, which is over by Sioux City, on the opposite side of Burlington’s east side; it’s the west side. I grew up in Bronson, a small town of about 200 individuals, and I went to high school at Lawton-Bronson, and then college at Iowa State University. I have a major in Transportation Logistics and a minor in Management. From there
I joined BNSF right out of college, joining their management training program. I’ve been with BNSF ever since; so, since July of 2003.


JK: Did you have any sort of a family connection to railroading?


NJ: I have two uncles who work for BNSF, and then I had a grandpa who worked for the CB&Q. So yes, it’s in the family. Two of the uncles have since retired, and my grandpa has passed.


JK: Where did your grandpa work on the CB&Q; what was his role?


NJ: He was a brakeman, a fireman, and an engineer.


JK: In Iowa?

NJ: Correct.


JK: That’s fascinating history, and great BNSF history, too; that CB&Q line. So, you mentioned that you have a degree in Transportation Logistics and also a minor in Management. For someone who might not be familiar with those fields, what sort of areas of study does Logistics involve?


NJ: If you break it down really simply, it’s all about getting a product from Point A to Point B, and everything that it entails: from the planning, to the coordination, to the execution in getting it from Location A to Location B.


JK: And when you think back to some of your earliest memories with those family connections to railroading, what, if anything, about that intrigued you to go ahead and study Logistics in college?


NJ: Well, quite frankly when I started college I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, you’re 18- years old, and you’re in college, and you’re thinking, What am I gonna do with the rest of my life? I took a couple of Business core classes in Transportation Logistics and, in the Introductory class, I was very interested in the movement: how things happen, how stuff gets from Point A to Point B, supply chain…. It really just started there. I think it was my Freshman year of college
that I took that class and thought, You know, this is what I want to do. Did I think that I wanted to work for the railroad? I mean, I knew about it because I had some family history with it, but when I was a 6th or 7th grader, I really wanted to be a truck-driver. In my mind it was low overhead, and you could drive a truck and get to see the world, or at least the United States. So that soon changed, obviously. When I took that class I said to myself, This is something I could see myself doing. It’s very challenging, and you get to see something from the beginning to the end. I took that class, and obviously advanced classes from there, and then took an internship with International Banker, which is in Memphis, where I did a lot with supply chain and trucking, LTL* and truckload. After that internship, I had the opportunity to interview with BNSF. I knew about the company, and they had a great management training program, and I
joined BNSF in July of 2003.


JK: Over these past years since 2003, as you’ve very continuously moved up the ladder, what are some of the highlights that you recall about your career-path to this point?


NJ: I’m a pretty driven person. It’s all in my mind, so if I set my mind to it, I can get there. When I started with BNSF, it was very overwhelming. You’re talking about a large corporation where you don’t really know anything, so you start as a corporate management trainee. You’re depending on other people to help mold who you are. I’ve always been the type of person who’s going to ask questions, so for me it was never a fear of asking, because I don’t know what I don’t know; so asking questions, continuously learning, pressing myself. BNSF offers a lot of training for its employees, so I took advantage of that training. Basically, the sky is the limit, as long as you continue to push yourself. I’m a firm believer that it all comes from within, so if I want it bad enough, I can figure out a way to get it. But I’ve got to be driven enough to get to that goal. Like I said, the company offers the opportunities, you just have to take advantage of them.
Honestly, I’ve moved around a couple times and held different positions with BNSF, but I’ve never really applied for anything. I feel like your hard work speaks for itself. You just need to put your nose to the grindstone, be driven, and your work will honestly speak for itself.


JK: In your current role here, as the Terminal Superintendent in Galesburg, describe what might be a typical day for you, if there is such a thing.


NJ: So we pretty much have atypical days around here, but I would say a typical day looks like this: right now I’ve got an Assistant Superintendent here, two general managers, and then six train masters. So the assistant superintendent and I work 11 days on, 3 days off. On typical days we get in here any time between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. I live in Burlington, so I’ve got about a 45- minute commute. It makes for a long day. So, I get here at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning, and then we have routine morning reports—metrics that I look at—and then I start really digging into things. I know what we left last night, so how did we do overnight? And then what does today look like? So typically, that’s the first few hours of the morning.


After that’s done our conference calls are over, and then generally we’ve got meetings, investigations, or what we call Issue Resolution Processes (IRP meetings). We meet with our maintenance-of-way employees to discuss track-work that’s ongoing—any upcoming projects, really. It definitely varies; interacting with our employees, interacting with our train-masters upstairs, our guys out in the field.


There’s really no set day, and really your schedule is what you make of it. I could be the type of person that shows up here, and I’m here for three or four hours a day, and I can be just as productive as someone who’s here twelve hours. My tendency? I like to spend more time with people, just to understand what’s going on and what people are saying. Because let’s face it: I’m not out there every day in the elements. So when I’m out interacting with those individuals, it’s all about soliciting information, and then listening to what they’re telling me so I can provide feedback or corrective actions. And if they’re bringing a safety concern to my attention, am I just hearing it, then turning my back and going home or are we addressing the issue? It may not be that day, but if you address it in the near future, that establishes credibility and continues to build a relationship of trust with our employees.


The big thing out here: we provide a service, and we need to support our employees, support their safety, make them understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it. It’s very dynamic. We change every day. Today I’m focused on on-time performance, tomorrow I might be focused on something else. We don’t like to think we change the focus that fast, but we just need to make sure our employees know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.


JK: We paused for a minute before we came into the building, watching the cars go over the hump, and maybe for the sake of somebody who might read this interview later and be a little unfamiliar with Galesburg, I should ask you: what does this yard do? What does a classification yard do, and what happens here?


NJ: So, Galesburg is the second-largest classification yard on the BNSF. What we do: we bring intermediate or manifest trains into the yard, into our receiver, and then we send them over the hill, and they go over the hump and into the bowl. We have 48 tracks in the bowl—so six groups,48 tracks—and the cars go into each one of the tracks depending on their destination. So, there are tracks for Kansas City, tracks for Tulsa, tracks for North towns, and they go into each one of
these tracks based on our outbound TPC build program. We’ve got certain trains that we need to build every day by a certain time. The crews hump the cars into the bowl, and there’s an automated system called TPC -- Terminal Process Control -- which we just implemented here on May 8th. Before that we had Pro-Yard, which is a very similar system. TPC is more advanced and has newer technology. So: we hump the cars into the bowl, and then we have crews on the
north end, our trimmer crews, and they build the trains and put them in our departure yard. At that point we put power on them, and we call a crew, and then they depart. So we’re basically bringing trains in here, classifying the cars to go to the right destination, and then building the outbound trains and sending them to their destinations.


JK: And about how many trains leave the yard in a given 24-hour period?


NJ: As far as originating trains, we have anywhere from 16 to 19 that originate throughout the week, depending on what day it is.


JK: You said that a typical day involves touching base with any number of groups of people to see what’s going on out in the field. When you go home at night, what aspect of a day gives you the most satisfaction? What gets you out of bed at 3:00 in the morning to head here from Burlington? What is it that makes your blood pump about this job?


NJ: It’s all about making a difference. Today, before I came over here, I was over with our road foreman making phone calls to individuals about qualifications. It’s been a pretty difficult situation that we’re going through, because we’re consolidating pools. We’re changing the way that we’re operating here, as far as having deconsolidated pools. Prior to September 12th, we had employees that worked to Chicago, La Crosse, Creston, Kansas City, Centralia and Lindenwood, and they only worked to those locations. On September 12th, we consolidated all of our road
pools, and so now, as an employee who used to work to Creston alone, you could work to any of those destinations I just mentioned. Obviously, we’ve changed our environment. It’s impacting our employees’ work. It’s impacting their home-life because it’s changing their cycle time. It’s just a complete change for employees. Just like for anybody, change is very hard. We have to track their qualifications manually, and we’re trying to validate some of the qualifications we’ve
updated, so we’re picking up the phone and calling these individuals. I just called probably 20 or 30 people before I came over here.


When we talk about satisfaction—because it’s been such a difficult situation with a lot of tension around it—I had people saying, Thanks for calling me; I appreciate being on the phone, going through this conversation. I wasn’t expecting that. Generally, it’s very short, curt, right to the point: Ok, I’m done with you, so I’m hanging up the phone. But several individuals said, Hey, I appreciate that, I appreciate you calling me, I understand. We’re trying to get the qualifications completed because we have some changes coming on November 15th that could impact the pay, as far as if employees are qualified or not qualified. For something like that, calling goes a long way. It goes a long way for me to go out and say, Thanks, I appreciate what you did when you did x, y, and z. It’s the same thing for us. It’s good to know that we’re all going through this difficult situation together, for someone to actually say, I appreciate what you did. That’s a big
thing for me. At the end of the day, even though I’m responsible for everything, I’m not here 24 hours a day. You have to trust the people that are here and trust that they’re going to make the right decisions when you’re not here. As a team, if we support each other, we’ll all be successful.


JK: And that sort of speaks to some of the soft skills that are necessary in this job. Obviously, you’ve got the college education, and you’ve been in the management training program, but talk about those personal skills, those sorts of attributes that you think have contributed to making things run smoothly here and have contributed to your success.


NJ: It comes down to this: people out here really don’t care what you know, they want to know how much you care first. Are you going to listen to an employee? Am I going to sit here and listen to you, or am I going to pretend that I’m listening, and as soon as I leave I wasn’t really listening, but was only acting like I was? It’s all about being engaged, listening to people, responding regardless if you can do what they want, or just providing feedback on the whys, on
the why nots. There’s a lot of difficult conversations that you have to have, but there’s a lot of great conversations.


We tend to focus on negativity—that’s anywhere, personal life and professional life—but I think what helps us be successful, here, is that we try to talk about some of the positive things. Understand there are a lot of changes going on, but also know that there are tools and resourcesthat we can use to make ourselves successful. We need to start focusing more and more on that.

We’re not perfect at it, but I do think it plays a big, big impact here. These individuals, they come to work, and they want to do the right thing. There’s not a single person who comes to work wanting to do the wrong thing or to get hurt. It’s all how we build that team environment. Everybody plays a part. Some people play a bigger part than others, but everyone has a voice. We need to continue to make sure we remember that and keep everyone on that same page and on the same team. There’s certain people who get left behind or they have a negative experience, and that can be very traumatic for the rest of the work group.


JK: The railroad profession is still obviously a majority male world. How would you describe your interaction with your predominately male colleagues, and how have you developed skills, maybe, that have allowed you to work best in this environment? And maybe even discuss some ways in which they may have had misconceptions about you, as a female in this job?


NJ: You have to prove yourself. You do that by being consistent in your behavior, being approachable. When I deal with males it really doesn’t phase me—they’re just people.


JK: [laughing] Right!


NJ: I don’t know if it’s the way that I grew up? I mean, I’m just dealing with co-workers. I’m not going to say it’s transactional, but it is. I don’t care if it’s a male or female co-worker, I’m going to treat the person the same anyway. So it doesn’t phase me at all; it’s just another person  I’m having a business transaction with, or making a decision with, or working with as part of a team. It just seems very seamless to me. I’ve been here 14, 15 years… it’s all that I’ve known.
I’ve got an older brother, so we tend to go back and forth quite a bit. Maybe I can relate some of it to that. Really, it’s a business transaction. Regardless of who that person is, it’s just a professional environment.


One thing: I stand my ground. If I’ve made up my mind, or if I’m going to rationalize why I’m making a decision, I’m firm in that decision. I can explain it. Whether or not we agree to disagree, there’s rationale for the decisions that I make, and if I’m confident in my decision, I’m going to stand behind that. I’m not going to allow someone—a male—to dominate me just because I feel like I’m underneath them, or I’m not superior to them. That doesn’t bother me. At
the end of the day, it’s not Nicole James making everything happen out here. It’s the people who work for me. I need to understand their role, respect them, take care of them because that’s part of my job. If they fail, I fail too. This is, ultimately, my responsibility.


JK: And you obviously have a life of your own outside this job, and a family of your own. This is a 24 / 7 operation, and very demanding. How do you find that right balance between a threeyear- old child, a husband, and other things I’m sure that you’d like to do with your time?

NJ: So it’s pretty dynamic, obviously. What’s really ironic about our situation is that my husband also works for BNSF!


JK: Oh, my gosh!


NJ: Yeah. So my husband, he has more of what I would call a “normal schedule.” We’re very nontraditional in the operating department. My husband is a special agent out of Burlington. We live in Burlington, and we have a three-year-old daughter, as you mentioned. We’ve always been of this opinion: if your family can live with your schedule, then you can live with it. We just find a way to make it work, which means building a support system. We’ve moved around several different times. The past two moves have been with my daughter and my husband. We just figure
it out. I’m pretty tough-minded, and we’re gonna figure out a way to make it work. When we relocate, school’s obviously a priority for us. Day-care too, and my husband—he’s in law enforcement—is a little more protective about that. That’s what we base our life around. And then, as far as life outside the railroad, we figure it out. I always tell people it’s in my head, but we just figure out a way to make it work. And I think it helps that we both work for BNSF
because we understand each other.


JK: Yes.


NJ: Like I said, we just have to build that support system, which might mean day-care at someone’s house in the middle of the night. Obviously, we both can be called out. But we figure that piece out. That’s one of our priorities when we relocate, and everything else just takes care of itself.


JK: Is there anything else you would add that I didn’t ask about?


NJ: It’s a very dynamic industry. Very challenging. We’re going through a lot of transition. Two, three years ago, business was great, but then business fell off. Just working through the employees being furloughed, recalling people from furlough—there’s just a lot of challenges. People get overwhelmed, and we just get wrapped-up in that negativity. But it doesn’t need to be there. It’s a lot easier said than done, especially as we make change.


As you know, the railroad has a legacy: everything that we did 100 years ago we still need to do now. We don’t accept change because a lot of railroaders are stuck in their ways. It makes for interesting dynamics around here. Especially as we move forward into the future, and we talk about being competitive. We have this task of remaining competitive, and how do we do that? It’s very challenging, and then to deliver the change… you’ve got to find that balance.


JK: And I’m watching that unit coal train go by, but boy, that world has changed, massively!

NJ: It has changed. UNISEF, our coal sets, are higher than what we thought—they’re about 330 right now—and we were at a low of about 180 in April of 2015. But I remember when I was on the Nebraska division. We had just over 500 coal sets in service, back when all the flooding was going on – or after the flooding, when routes were restored.


JK: Mmm hmm.


NJ: We had about 500 sets in service. It’s gone from about 500, down to that balance, right now, of about 330, and then all the way down to 180, here, a couple of years ago.


JK: Nicole, what would you say has been the most rewarding part of your career with the railroad?


NJ: I think the opportunity for advancement, and the educational and training tools that BNSF has offered. They’ve basically laid the foundation. If you want to take advantage of those opportunities and develop yourself, continuing to promote yourself, then the tools and trainings are there. You just have to take advantage of them.


JK: And you entered this industry right out of college. What advice would you give to other young men and women who are considering entering railroading?


NJ: So BNSF—or any railroad career—is a great career. It’s very dynamic. There’s a lot of opportunities within that career. You have to be a tough-minded optimist. There’s going to be challenging times in any career that you pick. However, the railroad has plenty of opportunities. The railroad industry allows for advancement, training, educational on-the-job training. Based on a person’s education and a person’s drive for wanting to be successful, I know that the railroad has a lot of opportunities for people.


Another piece too: you’re almost like a sponge. As you start out with the railroad, there’s so much, so many opportunities, and you just absorb everything. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to learn from people. Don’t be afraid to stick yourself in an uncomfortable environment. When you get in that uncomfortable environment, typically you learn. It’s scary to take that step, but once you’re in that environment, there’s so much knowledge that can be gained.


JK: And finally, as a woman in this predominantly male field, speak, if you would, to that young woman who is in the phases of considering a career and who may never have thought that she might find her life’s work in railroading. What would you say to that person?

NJ: I would say: take advantage of the opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, how I’ve been successful goes like this—I’m going to make my decision, and I’ve got a rational way of making that decision. Stand behind it. Be firm in your position. Don’t allow others to sway you. You know what you believe. You know in your heart you’ve got to make the right decision. Follow your dream. There’s so many opportunities with the railroad. Take advantage of them.


JK: It sounds like this is something women should be encouraged to take a look at, since it sounds like there are plenty of opportunities for skills to be utilized and to have a very rewarding life working in this environment.


NJ: Absolutely. There’s a lot of rewards that can be had working for the railroad. There are times that are not so rewarding, but I think that no matter what career you choose, you’re always going to have the ups and downs. But when you look at the overall picture of the last 13 or 14 years, the railroad has been very good to me. They’ve provided me with the opportunity for on the-job training to develop and expand my skill set. I’ve been very successful, and this company has rewarded me in ways that I didn’t expect.


It’s pretty challenging. Railroads are going through a difficult time retaining people. There’s a lotof opportunities. When you think about millennials, most millennials are not willing to work abnormal hours. I went through leadership training—BNSF has leadership training every year, and depending on what level you’re at, you go to a different leadership training. We get basically the same curriculum, but it’s catered to different levels within the company. One of the videos we had this year said that by the time you’re 38, the average person will have changed jobs
twelve times. Twelve times by the age of 38! I can’t imagine that. My mom worked for the county, my dad worked for Mid-American Energy—they were life-timers. They spent 40-some years at the same organizations. I can’t imagine shopping around, moving job to job.


JK: And they didn’t move, probably. You lived in the same place all your life.


NJ: Right. I’m looking at retirement, investing, savings. I’m taking care of myself, my family, and asking, what does the future look like? I love the stability. There’s significant stability with the railroad. You see a company come up today and go down tomorrow. Now, it might be veryappealing to an individual to make $35,000 a year, working Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00. It’s not as appealing to work 24 hours a day. You’re not actually working 24 hours, of
course, but to have that on-call responsibility and to maybe work nights, holidays, weekends, depending on what it looks like. But BNSF takes care of its employees. We’re not really payed for how hard our work is, but more for the inconveniences to your life. That can be true of the employees out here, too, who work on the trains. It’s not that you have to be a rocket scientist, but at the end of the day, it’s an inconvenience working nights, holidays, weekends, or not being able to see your family, or not having a normal schedule like most people think.

But as you move forward into the future, and you look at millennials, the commitment is just not there. I’m not a millennial, but I can relate to that. I understand, but I have a hard time getting there because it’s not how I grew up. Part of the way that I am is the way I was molded. I just believe that a job is a career, that I’ll make it work. There’ll be different opportunities that will come my way. Not every job is my favorite job, but this is a good company that’s taking care of me, and I have faith that it will continue to take care of me in the future. It’s hard, and it’s not common for females to be in the field. Not common at all. We have diversified a little bit more in the last couple of years. BNSF has a strong focus on it, but if you don’t have individuals who are willing to do it, it’s pretty hard to force someone into that mold.


JK: That’s why I was particularly pleased that you were willing to let us talk to you, because the other ladies that we’ve got slated—that we hope we can interview for this series—some of them are sitting in the corporate suite at major Class I headquarters. Just fascinating career paths, but you have the responsibility to see that trains get built and sent out of the yard every day.


NJ: I remember when I started with BNSF. I was the corporate manager trainee, and of course your eyes are wide open, and you’re trying to take everything in, trying to remember how everything works. I thought: there’s no way I could be a terminal manager. There’s no way I could be a superintendent. I’ll never be able to figure this out. When I look back at my career, and I think about how I felt when I started versus where I am now, it truly is amazing. I doubted myself. I didn’t think I was going to get here. I thought it was too overwhelming, but as you learn and you grow, you develop more confidence.


JK: One step at a time.


NJ: You’re exactly right. It’s always reassuring with the promotions and the lateral movement and the development, because it continues to diversify my portfolio. It’s different. I’ve been in the corporate environment. The previous job that I had, I was actually the regional director of crew, so I had, basically, from California to Chicago, and all the individuals who plan our careers, hiring. I even had to get crews to Kansas City and trains back to Galesburg. All the way down to that level, those individuals reported up to me. So I was in a corporate environment on an OC floor. I don’t know if you’ve heard about that, but that’s where we do all our dispatching and support groups for business units. Being down there, it’s different.


JK: You mean at the control center at Fort Worth, right?


NJ: Yeah. So you semi-forget about the impact of the winter weather, the ice and all that. Growing up in the Midwest, I obviously knew about it, and I’d spent part of my career working on the north line around the central region, so I’m very familiar with it. But you do almost get a false sense of security when you’re in an office environment, working that normal schedule.

Mae: What—and this is my own ignorance—what is the purpose behind working 11 days on, 3 days off?


NJ: So it’s kind of what we choose. You can do a 5 and 2. So if you wanted to do a Tuesday through Saturday, or a Sunday through Thursday, you could. Not everyone wants to work a weekend. The way we do 11 and 3, every other weekend you have a 3-day weekend, which helps you decompress. I think that I’m a workaholic, since I still stay engaged because I want to know what’s going on at the end of the day regardless of what happens here. I’m still ultimately responsible for having a conversation or being able to explain what happened—an interruption, good or bad things, whatever it might be. It’s the way I am, the way I’m geared. I stay caught up in my email, but that’s what we choose. Train-masters work 3 on, 3 off. So, they work 3 days, then they have 3 days off, then work 3 days, rotational throughout the month. Two months of days, two months of nights. For a schedule like that, they’re an exempt employee, so they get an additional week of vacation. Once again, they’re potentially working nights, holidays, weekends. They are, inevitably, which is why they get that additional week of vacation. People do it differently at different terminals; some people do the 5 and 2, and then the 11 and 3.


We’ve had some changes here with our train-master staffing, so we’ve had a to be more handson than we typically would be. I’m covering sometimes for the terminal manager’s role and also some train-master functions, just as we work through the transition. We’ve had changes in staffing that we’re working through. We’ve got a couple new people coming on board. It just depends on your level of comfort with your team and what’s going on the railroad. We’ve got
service interruption. We’ve got more people, more hands-on deck, more people watching it. I would say our schedules out here are pretty abnormal, compared to what most people would consider normal. Like I said, I have a brother-in-law who works for BNSF too. It’s in our family, in our blood.


JK: It sounds like it.


NJ: When I talk to other individuals—whether it’s individuals I went to college or high school with—it’s very hard for them to relate. I’ve got a friend who works in a psychiatric home, and she’ll talk about how stressed-out she is, how much she’s got going on. And I mean, I could have potentially dismissed someone that day, or could have been having the difficult conversations about the consolidated pool. She just can’t make the connection. It’s hard for me because I get so
caught up in it that it’s normal. I’m thinking, how do these people not understand, when I live and breathe it?


What we have realized, as a company, is that we’re not going to have people who are going to be like this. I would say I’m fairly abnormal. I am abnormal, I know that already. We don’t have people that want to do what I do. And having a small one at home? It’s challenging. There’s good days and bad days. She’s still young, but I try to make the events that she has at school. She’s in preschool. As much as I don’t want to admit it to my husband—I don’t know what I’d
do without him. I never want to tell him that, because then he’ll feel like he has me hostage. You truly have to have a good support system. I don’t know how people do it as a single parent. I think it would be very difficult. I think you can do it. If I was put in that situation, if I set my mind to it, I could figure out a way to get it done, but it would be very difficult.


JK: As kids grow, and their schedules change, and the things they want to do change… like you said, you figure it out, but it’s certainly year to year. Sometimes it’s season to season. It’s baseball, it’s cheer leading, whatever. We’ve got a period of time where we’ve got three games a week. Practice season never stops.


NJ: Last week my boss was in town, and it was on Halloween, and my daughter had a little Halloween parade. They dressed up in their costumes, and I said, I’m going to go that, and I’ll come in after it. It’s not like any of us don’t work 40 hours a week, or 50 hours a week. You also have to make time. You have to figure out what works best for your schedule, and then work your work around that. I set my personal schedule around my work schedule, but if I have a commitment, I need to figure out a way to make that happen. If I don’t, shame on me. BNSF allows me to do stuff like that. If I’m not showing up for work, that’s one thing, but if you have events going on, shame on us for not figuring out a way to get it done. You shouldn’t allow that to interfere. There are important things that happen out here, but it’s all about priorities. Like I said, this company has been very good to me. I would take care of this company because it’s taken care of me and my family.


JK: Can I ask: who do you report directly to?


NJ: I report to Jason Jenkins.


JK: And he’s in Fort Worth?


NJ: No, he’s in Chicago. He’s the general manager, so superintendents all report to the general manager. Our general director of transportation would be Donna Still well. And they’re both in Chicago.


JK: I see.


NJ: And then Jason reports to Rob Reilly, who is the Vice President of the South region.


JK: Ok.


NJ: Rob reports to Matt Igoe—I don’t know if you’re familiar with the organizational structure.


JK: That’s what I was wondering. How many layers between you and…


NJ: And then Matt reports to Dave Freeman, who reports to Carl Ice. There’s been a lot of change over the past 18 months. We’ve right-sized our workforce based on business volumes. It’s been on both the exempt side and the scheduled side. A lot of difficult conversations were involved in the first round of reductions. As leaders, we have to make decisions like that. I’ve been put in a position where you have to have those difficult conversations. You just need to speak to the facts and allow yourself to be professional. It’s nothing personal. There are a lot of difficult conversations that any person goes through. It’s all in how you approach it and the message you deliver.


JK: It’s been interesting. You read about it in Progressive Railroading and you see the corporate story. But then you hear about it anecdotally, from people and families in town you know, about how it’s affecting their home life, their daily lives.


NJ: You’re talking about the consolidation?


JK: Yes. That’s been the most recent thing that some of the railroad families we know have been affected by.


NJ: It’s a change for all of us. A significant change. BNSF has not undergone any type of full consolidation of this magnitude. There were a lot of things we didn’t know until we started, and there’s no way we would’ve known them prior to the consolidation. It was Article IX, so it was imposed. It wasn’t a voluntary agreement where we said, Okay, let’s go ahead and do it, we’re gonna sign on the dotted line. That causes a little more tension, but it’s the platform that we
have. We can say, Well, I’m not gonna make it work, or there can be a lot of emotion and noise behind it, but at the end of the day, we can all admit that BNSF has taken care of its employees. Our paychecks are cashed every two weeks. There’s great benefits. It’s just getting past the change.


That is the most difficult piece—getting past the change—since it’s so significant. It’s all about providing resources, tools, the whys. When we started this, we had a command center over at the YD for three weeks straight, 24 hours a day. We had multiple supervisors over there, having conversations with our employees: here’s what’s happening, here’s why it’s happening, any questions, concerns? Employees could address them with us. We could’ve buried our head in the
sand and not addressed it, but we went over and had those difficult conversations because that’s the right thing to do as leaders. They weren’t easy conversations, and they’re still not easy

conversations, but there’s a level of respect that you gain from people by having that conversation. I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna say: this is great, I love it. But if you can explain the why, it diffuses that emotion. At the end of the day, if we talk about the facts, the majority of the time the emotions will simmer down. There won’t be so much hyper-awareness around it. It’s been a big change. The railroad’s really big here, around Galesburg.


JK: Absolutely.


NJ: Maytag was very big at one point in time. We want to continue having the railroad here, and as long as we continue to do what we have been doing, and to safely produce, like we have, I don’t see any reason why Galesburg doesn’t have a future with the railroad. Or the railroad doesn’t have a future with Galesburg. It’s a joint venture together. The guys and the gals out here, they want to do the right thing. They want to take care of the railroad because they like
their jobs. They realize there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities around here where you can make some money, with the benefits and the compensation package. It’s a big deal, a very big deal right now.


JK: Well, we sure appreciate you taking time to talk with us,


NJ: Absolutely.


JK: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure meeting you. Would you mind if I got your picture, just right here?


NJ: Sure!


JK: Thank you so much!


NJ: Did you get the noise in the background too? [distant train horn]

Call us:

309-345-4634

Locate us: 

311 East Main St., Suite 513, Galesburg, IL 61401

Copyright:

(c) National Railroad Hall of Fame 2018. 

Social Media: