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UP Centennial yard to be renamed

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#1 Keller Pirate

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Posted 02 February 2007 - 01:28 PM

Kind of a long story but it has a few references to Ft Worth and the name change for the railroad yard.

OMAHA, NE -- After 47 years in railroads, Dick Davidson said recruiting the leaders and directors who will guide the nation's largest railroad after his retirement as chairman of the Omaha-based Union Pacific was his most important achievement.

"I feel really good that this company is teed up on the verge of greatness," he said Wednesday, his last day. "The leadership I'm leaving behind, you couldn't have a better team."

Jim Young, president and chief executive, becomes chairman of the board today.

Davidson said he takes pride in the senior managers who, like Young, were chosen from within U.P.'s ranks or those who were hired from outside for key spots.

Each senior manager was placed during Davidson's tenure. Also, every current member of U.P.'s board except one was recruited during that time.

"This whole organization, I've had a hand in it," he said.

Davidson, 65, was relaxed, cheerful and at times slightly wistful during an interview that ranged from his first days as an 18-year-old brakeman, to the technological changes of railroads, to his greatest career disappointment. He spoke in his 19th-floor office in the headquarters building he pushed to have built in downtown Omaha.

Davidson said he was "coasting" on his last day, compared to his busy first days of railroading, when he took six student trips as a brakeman before officially beginning work. New hires today receive months of paid training before being allowed to work trains, he said.

"I probably got six trips in less than a week," he said. "And there was so much to learn."

He grew up near Allen, Kansas. His father died when he was 6 years old. To earn money while attending Washburn University, Davidson started working for Missouri Pacific Railroad, taking furlough from the railroad when necessary for school.

He graduated with a degree in history, and Missouri Pacific offered him a spot in its management training program.

Davidson decided to stick with railroading long enough to see if he could make superintendent by age 30. If he didn't, he decided, he would go to law school.

"The railroad saved the world from another lawyer."

He was 27 when he was named superintendent, getting the promotion after an "extremely stressful" trainmaster post at Fort Worth, Texas, where he led a project to make the rail yard computer-controlled.

The project was technologically advanced for the late 1960s and so complicated -- determining how to handle business while the yard was shut down -- that Davidson said he got the job after his boss had a heart attack. Completing the job was one of his greatest achievements and what put his career on its path.

Davidson learned Monday night at a board of directors dinner in his honor that Centennial Yard, where that turning point in his career took place, will be renamed Davidson Yard.

"That's really meaningful to me," he said.

Davidson rose quickly in Missouri Pacific and, after the merger, in U.P.

Other career highlights:

. Heading a focus-on-quality effort under former U.P. Chief Executive Mike Walsh. The work led to U.P. becoming a finalist for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1994, 2001 and 2002. To be an "old smokestack" industry and a quality-award finalist "is a wonderful tribute to our employees."

. Bringing U.P. Corp. back to Omaha. The holding company had been headquartered on the East Coast, most recently in Bethlehem, PA.

. Building a new headquarters building, a "once-in-a-century opportunity." The project assembled all the company's Omaha employees under one roof, plus brought 1,000 jobs from St. Louis. The project ended longtime speculation about whether U.P. might move its headquarters from Omaha.

. Refocusing the company on railroading by selling or spinning off other companies, such as Overnight Trucking, Skyway Freight System and U.P.'s oil and gas business and technology company, which the holding company had bought to diversify.

"Today, we are essentially just a railroad," Davidson said. "All those other companies were competing for capital. Not only was the railroad not a business where growth had disappeared, it turned out to be just the opposite."

One disappointment stands out starkly in Davidson's mind: The gridlock and service meltdown that followed U.P.'s 1996 merger with Southern Pacific.

"We disappointed so many people. That was the biggest challenge I've faced in my 47 years."

The federal government placed a moratorium on rail mergers in 2000 after the U.P.-S.P. merger and the breakup of Conrail between CSX and Norfolk Southern Corp., which also resulted in service problems.

In the end, the merger delivered efficiencies and improvements, Davidson said. The railroad had integration problems that took "an enormous amount of work to get the ship righted."

Throughout the greatest difficulties of the merger, "U.P. pulled together as a team. It was one of its finest moments."

Davidson said he has witnessed great technological changes through his nearly half century in railroads, from teletypes to train control and Omaha's high-tech Harriman Dispatch Center.

"Technology is what saved the railroad industry, along with deregulation," he said, recalling his early railroad days, when communications "nine times out of 10" would arrive by teletype after the train already arrived.

Instead of maintaining track with a shovel, equipment monitors rails and maintains track bed automatically.

"We can do a much better job of maintaining the railroad."

What he sees as permanent changes in the industry make its future bright: high fuel prices that make the more fuel-efficient railroads more attractive; growing import business from Asia that moves mostly by rail; strong business moving by rail to and from Mexico; and capacity that has been absorbed by higher freight demand.

"The railroad industry is going to be more valuable to our country than anybody ever imagined."

Davidson said he and his wife, Trish, will travel to visit their children and grandchildren in Sacramento, Fort Worth and Austin, Texas. They have a home in Bonita Springs, Florida, south of Ft. Myers, but also will keep an apartment in Omaha. He'll have an office in Florida and might use one at U.P., as well, he said. He'll continue as a director of Chesapeake Energy Corp.

Forty-seven years might not be enough of a career, though.

Davidson didn't rule out a second career - maybe something other than railroading - though he said he wants to relax a while and enjoy not working for the first time since he was a teen.

There's plenty on which to reflect.

"I'm just a farm boy from Kansas. Sometimes I feel like I should be walking around with an autograph book," he said, picking up a framed photograph of his family with President George W. Bush.

Not only did he meet the last several U.S. presidents but also the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Canada, the king of Saudi Arabia and, of course, leaders of industry.

"It has been a lot of fun," he said. "It exceeded anything I ever dreamed." - Stacie Hamel, The Omaha World-Herald

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