News & Reviews News Wire Jim Foote, who led CSX to record operating and financial performance, dies at 70 (updated)

Jim Foote, who led CSX to record operating and financial performance, dies at 70 (updated)

By Bill Stephens | April 17, 2024

A third-generation railroader, Foote took over as CEO after the 2017 death of E. Hunter Harrison and completed CSX's Precision Scheduled Railroading makeover

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Jim Foote, who served as CSX chief executive from December 2017 through September 2022, died on April 16 at age 70. CSX

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former CSX CEO Jim Foote, who helped turn the railroad from industry laggard into a leader, died yesterday. He was 70.

“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,” CSX CEO Joe Hinrichs said in a statement today. “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.”

Foote was named chief executive in December 2017 following the death of CEO E. Hunter Harrison. Foote, who was Harrison’s chief marketing officer at Canadian National, joined CSX in October 2017 as chief operating officer during Harrison’s rapid-fire implementation of the low-cost Precision Scheduled Railroading operating model.

“Hunter was a true legend, and CSX would not be in the position it is today without the tremendous changes that he was able to make during his time here,” Foote said at the time. “I am committed to seeing his vision through and making CSX the best railroad in North America.”

The Foote era at CSX began with a rumble that signaled his commitment to following through on what Harrison began. In a symbolic move, Foote’s first decision after being named chief executive was ordering the hump bulldozed at Tilford Yard in Atlanta, one of eight humps converted to flat-switching under Harrison.

“Atlanta hump yard today is flat,” Foote said on the railroad’s January 2018 earnings call. “There is no turning back.”

Under Foote’s leadership CSX would go on to become the best performing Class I railroad, based on its financial and operational statistics. By the end of 2019 revenue was up 8%, expenses fell 9%, and the operating ratio leapfrogged from a back-of-the-pack 69.4% in 2016 to an industry leading 58.4%. Net profit nearly doubled compared to the pre-PSR CSX, and earnings per share grew 130%.

Jim Foote with his successor as CSX Transportation CEO, Joe Hinrichs, at a town hall meeting  in Jacksonville, Fla. CSX

Foote guided the railroad through the pandemic, related huge swings in freight volume, and the crew shortages that led to widespread service problems at the big four U.S. railroads.

Jamie Boychuk, who was executive vice president of operations for much of Foote’s tenure at CSX, says Foote was a stabilizing force when he became chief executive. “Jim guided us through some of the most difficult challenges in our industry with respect to COVID and stepping in after Hunter passed away,” he says. “We were very fortunate Jim was able to step into that position. He became one of the greatest CEOs CSX has ever seen.”

CSX made significant acquisitions under Foote’s leadership. To extend the reach of its lucrative chemical business, CSX in 2021 purchased bulk trucking company Quality Carriers. CSX acquired New England regional Pan Am Railways in 2022, cementing the railroad’s dominance in the region.

And in a landmark $525 million deal with Virginia, CSX agreed in 2021 to an easement that will enable the separation of passenger and freight operations in the busy Washington, D.C., to Petersburg, Va., corridor. The deal also included the sale of CSX line segments from Petersburg to Ridgeway, N.C., and from Doswell to Clifton Forge.

A native of Superior, Wis., Foote was a third-generation railroader. He began his career with Soo Line in 1972 at age 18, while he was still in high school.

Eric Jakubowski, a former CN executive who is chief commercial officer at short line holding company Anacostia Rail Holdings, remembers Foote’s work ethic. “Not many people realize how hard Jim worked to climb the ladder in the industry,” Jakubowski says. “He started as a car cleaner in the mechanical department. He worked nights so that he could go to school.”

One of Foote’s favorite stories to tell was about his first shift in the Soo roundhouse in Superior. A carman gave Foote two pieces of string, told him to tightly tie up the bottom of his pant legs, and to go shovel rotting grain out of the pits where covered hoppers had been repaired. “I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one in the pit,” Foote would say. “There were a lot of rats who wanted that grain more than I did.”

Foote, who was married with a young family, worked full-time as a hostler and machinist helper at night while earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Superior during the day. He later would land a day job at Chicago and North Western’s Proviso Yard in Chicago so that he could attend John Marshall Law School at night. Among his duties at Proviso: Digging ditches for signal cables and repairing the hump’s retarders.

When Foote was giving visiting executives a tour of Proviso, he struck up a conversation with CNW’s vice president of labor relations, who asked what a guy like Foote was doing working in the yard. “The next thing I know, I was manager of labor relations while still in law school,” Foote would recall.

Foote joined Canadian National in 1995, where he worked in investor relations during CN’s initial public offering. He later moved into the railway’s marketing department, where he was vice president of merchandise sales and marketing. Foote would go on to become CN’s chief marketing officer and was part of what he would call a C-suite “dream team” that included Harrison, Chief Operating Officer Ed Harris, and Chief Financial Officer Claude Mongeau.

Foote retired from CN at the end of 2009 after Mongeau was chosen to replace Harrison. Before rejoining Harrison at CSX, Foote was CEO of Bright Rail Energy, a 2012 startup that developed technology for converting diesel-electric locomotives to natural gas.

Foote was a straight shooter, the rare railroad CEO who didn’t shy away from the reason railroads have lost market share over the years. “It took the railroad industry decades of poor service to drive the business off the railroads onto the trucks,” Foote told investors and analysts on the railroad’s January 2020 earnings call. “We are not going to get the business off the highway back onto the railroad in two weeks. So we’re going to have to earn it.”

Man in dark suit standing at podium
CSX Transportation CEO Jim Foote addresses the North American Rail Shippers conference in Kansas City, Mo., in 2002. David Lassen

Foote said CSX would have to provide reliable service, prove it can deliver customers’ freight with trucklike dependability, and convince shippers that its service improvements are sustainable. In a major accomplishment during Foote’s tenure, CSX was able to halt and reverse the decline of its merchandise network.

Boychuk says Foote possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the railroad industry, and remained a mentor even after he retired. “We spoke multiple times a week. He had so much industry knowledge and information. He was a library to me. And if he didn’t know the answer to a question, he knew where to find the answers. There are few people in the industry who are like that,” Boychuk says.

Independent analyst Anthony B. Hatch says Foote was his oldest friend in the railroad business. “I met him as the investor relations guy for CNW on a business car train to the Powder River Basin. There in 1989 began for me a career of learning from him that continued to this year,” Hatch says. “He was a critical conduit to the investment community in the IPO of the Canadian National in ‘95. Then chief marketing officer, then CSX….I’m proud to say his last big public speech was at RailTrends in November ‘22. And, of course, he knocked it out of the park.”

Tributes have poured in from Foote’s former colleagues.

Canadian Pacific Kansas City CEO Keith Creel said he was “honored to have worked with Jim directly or indirectly for two decades. He was fiercely loyal and committed to the companies he served, the friends he shared, and the family he loved. Jim’s contributions to our industry will not be forgotten nor will Jim.”

Former CN CEO JJ Ruest worked with Foote in the railway’s marketing department. “Jim had a great influence on me and a generation of railroaders and marketers at CN, past and present – on thinking bigger, embracing changes, taking risk, being bold, taking unorthodox industry positions, bringing together a diverse team to get things done,” Ruest says.

Jakubowski says Foote used to joke that no one should ask him for legal advice. “But he certainly had the perspective of a deal maker, a peacemaker,” he says.

“Jim had incredible strategic insights. He knew the history, the possibilities. He also understood leverage, especially as it related to the peer Class I’s,” Jakubowski says. “I worked directly for him at CN for almost a decade. He authorized so many trend-setting ventures: Alliances, routing protocols, acquisitions – never missed an opportunity to take the lead for his marketing group.”

An avid golfer, Foote was “a very private man” but was personable, Boychuk says. “Jim was always up for a drink and a story whenever someone had time to hang out with him,” he says.

“Jim loved Chicago sports. Even though he grew up in Superior, Wis., he made sure everyone knew that he loved being a Chicagoan during the heyday of the Bulls and White Sox,” Jakubowski says.

— Updated at 11 a.m. with expanded and revised text.

5 thoughts on “Jim Foote, who led CSX to record operating and financial performance, dies at 70 (updated)

  1. I had a fair amount of interaction with Jim over the years, primarily during his time at CN and to a lesser degree at CSX.

    Jim was among a relatively small group of senior railroad executives who maintained a genuine customer focus. I always found him to be true to his word in my business dealings with him.

    My most sincere sympathy to Jim’s family and close friends. He was way too young to go this soon.

  2. While I don’t fully agree with everything Joe Boardman did at Amtrak, his demise early into retirement was very sad.

    1. And just so I understand, what does Joe Boardman’s retirement have to do with the death of Jim Foote?

  3. While I didn’t fully agree with what he accomplished at CSX, I do offer my condolences to his family for their loss.

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