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Jim Foote, 1954-2024

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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CSX photo.

James M. Foote, a third-generation railroader who began his career at 18 as a Soo Line nighttime mechanical department laborer in his native Superior, Wisc., died April 16. He was 70.

Foote, who retired from CSX as President and CEO in September 2022 and was succeeded by Joe Hinrichs, was born in Superior and followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He worked on the railroad at night while attending classes at the University of Wisconsin-Superior during the day. After graduating from UW-Superior, Foote moved to Chicago, where he continued his education and his railroad career. He attended John Marshall Law School at night and worked for the Chicago & North Western during the day.

Hunter Harrison and Jim Foote in 2008. CN photo.

A senior executive with more than 40 years of railroad industry experience in finance, operations and sales and marketing, Jim Foote succeeded his long-time colleague E. Hunter Harrison upon the latter’s death on Dec. 16, 2017 as CSX President and CEO barely two months after he had been named Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. On Dec. 15—the day before Harrison’s death—Foote was named Acting CEO as CSX announced that the ailing Harrison had been placed on medical leave.

“I worked alongside Hunter for more than a decade,” said Foote upon being named Harrison’s permanent successor. “His pioneering approach to railroading unlocked significant efficiencies and value, and we remain focused on delivering on this vision for CSX, our customers and our shareholders. The execution of Precision Scheduled Railroading is well under way, with the most critical components of the implementation completed and beginning to generate measurable operating improvement.”

Foote had returned to a Class I railroad executive position following five years as President and CEO of Bright Rail Energy, a technology company formed in 2012 to design, develop and sell products that allow railroads to convert locomotives to natural gas power, and eight years after retiring from CN in 2009 at 55. At CN, which he joined in 1995 at age 41 as Vice President of Investor Relations to assist the then-Canadian Crown Corporation’s privatization under Paul Tellier, Foote was Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Prior to that, served as Vice President of Sales and Marketing – Merchandise. During his 17 years at CN, Foote worked alongside J.J. Ruest, Claude Mongeau, Keith Creel, John Orr, Ed Harris, Hunter Harrison and Jamie Boychuk, among others. Both Orr and Boychuk, who held key operating positions at CN, told Railway Age they considered Foote a mentor and held him in the highest regard, not only as a railroader but as a friend. Boychuk was CSX’s Executive Vice President and COO under both Foote and Harrison. (Interestingly, Orr is now EVP and COO at Norfolk Southern; Boychuk is the COO choice of activist investor group attempting to wrest control of NS.)

Owing largely to the mystique surrounding the now-legendary Harrison, CSX stock plunged 10%—about $6 billion in market capitalization—in opening trading on Wall Street following the announcement of his medical leave and an early-morning conference call that offered little new information, save for assurances from Foote that the changes Harrison began implementing as soon as he arrived early in 2017 would continue. The investment community’s take on Harrison’s departure was largely skeptical. “Uncertainty will remain for months,” said Cowen and Co. Managing Director and Railway Age Wall Street Contributing Editor Jason Seidl. “As a result of Harrison’s medical condition, we think there will be a prolonged period of heightened uncertainty around the stock. The company’s near- and long-term outlooks are unclear, in our view. We are unsure if Harrison will return to run the company.” As far as Jim Foote was concerned, “while he is a capable leader, we do not view this as a long-term solution for the company and expect the Board to start looking inside and outside the organization for a long-term successor to Harrison,” Seidl said. “Regardless of whether or not insiders believe Harrison can return to the company as CEO, we think a plan will need to be put in place immediately.” 

Needless to say, none of that came to pass. Foote led CSX through a period of record financial and operating performance, continuing the work Harrison had started, albeit at a somewhat more measured pace. Within two years—compared to Harrison’s arrival in early 2017 and his some-say rushed PSR implementation—revenue grew 8% while expenses fell 9% The operating ratio dropped to 58.4%, best in the industry. Net profit almost doubled, and earnings per share grew 130%.

Screenshot of CNBC Mad Money appearance by Jim Foote.

In an Oct. 23, 2019 interview on CNBC’s Mad Money with host Jim Cramer, Foote said, “The end result … is that we provide a much, much more reliable product, but we’re also able to pivot much better, too. The railroad business is the railroad business, [and it] changes all the time. … We’re able to move in any direction we need to in any given time much better.” Watch the complete interview.

Yet, Foote’s tenure at CSX included some difficult times. He led the railroad through the economy-crippling COVID-19 global pandemic, which escalated in the U.S. in March 2020. Later, along with Class I peers, he and CSX were subject to intense scrutiny and harsh criticism for service problems and labor shortages by the Surface Transportation Board and its activist Chairman, Marty Oberman. Foote famously butted heads with Oberman and STB member Robert Primus at public hearings, expressing annoyance at Oberman’s and Primus’ thinly veiled hostile line of questioning.

Foote on Nov. 2, 2021 responded to Oberman’s Oct. 18, 2021 written request for information about service problems, as evidenced by what STB characterized as “numerous customer complaints.” “Your letter referenced anecdotal service incidents, service metrics and employee figures,” Foote said in a measured, fact-filled response. “Our customer solutions department has not seen a recent increase in service inquiries, and we were not aware of informal complaints increasing to your public affairs office. We serve more than 5,000 customer facilities, and to address issues we need to know certain key facts: when, where and which customer facility … The transportation industry is facing a particularly tight labor market with longer hiring lead times. Against this backdrop, we’re seeing high attrition rates during the on-boarding, training and first year of service for conductors. On top of this are the COVID cases, which have been as high as 5% of the T&E workforce early in the year.”

When Foote retired from CSX in 2022, Board Chair John J. Zillmer noted that Foote had “been at the helm throughout most of the company’s transformation, producing record operating and financial results, focusing on sustainability, and emphasizing the importance of safety. We cannot thank him enough for his contributions to CSX, and his commitment to ensuring a smooth transition.” Foote remained as an advisor to Joe Hinrichs until March 31, 2023.  

Joe Hinrichs (left) and Jim Foote at a CSX employee Town Hall meeting. CSX photo.

“CSX is sad to share the news that Jim Foote, who served as our President and CEO from December 2017 until September 2022, has passed away,” CSX said. “Jim’s impact on CSX and the railroad industry at large was significant, spanning more than four decades of dedicated service. Prior to assuming the role of CEO, Jim held the position of Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, where he played a pivotal role in aligning CSX’s departments and advancing the operational model pioneered by the late E. Hunter Harrison while also driving important advancements in innovative technologies and safety enhancements. Jim’s journey in the railroad industry began at the age of 18, reflecting his deep-rooted passion and expertise that guided him through various senior executive roles at Soo Line, Chicago & North Western and CN.”

“Jim’s leadership was instrumental in guiding CSX through a transformational period in our company’s history, advancing CSX to new heights, marked by record operating and financial performance,” said Joe Hinrichs, President and CEO. “We are appreciative of Jim’s contributions to the company and the entire railroad industry. The ONE CSX team mourns Jim’s passing and our deepest condolences go out to his family, friends, and all those whose lives were affected by his presence.”

”We were greatly saddened to learn of the passing of veteran railroader Jim Foote,” said CPKC President and CEO Keith Creel. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Jim’s family, loved ones, friends and former colleagues across the railroad industry at this difficult time.”

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