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By Pat Foran, Editor
Ed Hamberger is an advocate’s advocate, allies and adversaries say. The president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads (AAR) is connected. Smart. Honorable. Politically savvy. Open-minded. Forward-looking.
He’s also a good listener. A big-picture guy. A consensus-builder. A Philadelphia Phillies fan. A straight shooter.
The word colleagues and counterparts used most often during recent interviews when asked about Hamberger and his 20-year AAR run was “trust.”
“Trust and mutual respect — every successful relationship is based on those two things,” says James Stem Jr., retired national legislative director of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART). “Once I knew I could trust Hamberger, the relationship could flourish.”
The way Hamberger has flourished on Capitol Hill or wherever his railroad members needed him to be the past two decades.
Since signing on as AAR’s CEO in 1998, Hamberger has helped the freight-rail industry navigate periods of economic change and regulatory uncertainty. He’s consistently (and nimbly) advocated for a balanced regulatory environment, one that has enabled railroads to allocate continued record investments in their infrastructure.
He’s also fostered innovation on the government relations front, leading the way as the industry entered the public-private partnership realm. And Hamberger remains focused on clearing a path to help railroads develop and deploy new safety technologies.
Hamberger’s grasp of transportation issues (not just the rail-specific ones) and ability to put them in context make him a natural dot-connector and go-to problem solver. In so doing, AAR’s longest-tenured head has done more than help railroads tell the rail story. He’s nudged them to keep the storytelling in present — and future — tense.
In May, Progressive Railroading named Hamberger — who’ll retire in April 2019 — the recipient of its 2018 Railroad Innovator Award. He’ll receive the award, which recognizes an individual’s outstanding achievement in the rail industry, at the magazine’s annual RailTrends® conference Nov. 29-30 at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City.
“Ed has helped the AAR through the flowering of the ‘railroad renaissance’ with grit when it was needed to fend off ill-conceived regulatory threats, and he did so with grace, always,” says Tony Hatch, an independent transportation analyst and RailTrends’ program consultant. “Under his tenure, the rails moved through enormous challenges, from the fall of coal to the rise of intermodal, and the PTC mandate. Under his beneficent leadership, the rails have done so well and expanded to be a truly continental network. Like Victoria to 19th century England, we may look back on this as rail’s ‘Edwardian Age.’”
Technically, the Edwardian Age began in 1950 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where Hamberger, 68, was born. His father was a policeman; his mother, a telephone operator. The Hambergers had three children, all boys. Ed was the youngest. The Hambergers moved to Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, 15 months after Ed was born.
In Sinking Spring, the railroad was evident in everyday life. One of the Hamberger’s next-door neighbors was a brakeman for the nearby Reading Railroad. Train schedules had to be factored into the Hamberger family’s project management planning. For example, you had to know when the locomotives would be running so you wouldn’t hang sheets out to dry.
“I regularly heard the train whistle in the middle of the night,” Hamberger says.
The whistle signaled there was another world — whole other worlds — out there. In the late 1960s, Hamberger enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to study foreign service.
“I was thinking about being a diplomat, seeing the world,” he says.
At Georgetown, Hamberger earned both a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in foreign service. After taking the law school admission test on what he terms “a whim,” he earned his Juris Doctor degree, also from Georgetown.
Hamberger did a lot of professional dot-connecting while earning his degrees during the tumultuous early 1970s in D.C. He edited the Georgetown Law School Journal, and served as a speech writer for the Bureau of Land Management and the American Petroleum Institute, and as an aide to U.S. Sen. Hugh Scott Jr. (R-Pa).
When U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) was considering a run for governor of Pennsylvania in 1977, he hired a half-dozen people “who had knowledge of the state,” Hamberger says, adding that he was one of the six.
Shuster ultimately decided not to run, but he liked Hamberger’s work. As chairman of the National Transportation Policy Study Commission (NTPSC), Shuster asked Hamberger if he’d be interested in signing on as general counsel. Hamberger was. And so began his career in the transportation realm.
Right out of the chute, Hamberger started helping to shape the landmark NTSPC report that would be issued in June 1979 — a report that included economic deregulation recommendations that surfaced in the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. He also began to connect with a variety of transportation industry execs, including NTSPC members and railroad leaders Ben Biaggini and Rob Krebs.
After concluding his NTSPC work, Hamberger signed on for a year-plus stint as staff director of the House Republican Policy Committee. Shuster, who’d become a mentor, had recommended Hamberger for the job.
In 1981, Hamberger took a policy-shaping break and entered the private sector, joining Lipsen, Hamberger, Whitten & Hamberger, a D.C. public policy law firm. He spent seven years there, sharpening his message-crafting skills and broadening his intermodal transportation knowledge base. Hamberger’s clients included the American Waterway Operators, which represented the interests of the U.S. tugboat, towboat and barge industry.
“Ed has always been able to maintain strong relationships with all kinds of people in Washington,” says retired Norfolk Southern Corp. Chairman, President and CEO Wick Moorman. “Ed’s very astute, politically, and obviously, he knows a lot of people.”
No surprise, then, that the federal government came calling again in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan nominated Hamberger to serve as assistant secretary for government affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
For the next two years, Hamberger learned the ins and outs of another federal agency, honing his consensus-building skills and meeting a new slate of policymakers — including Federal Maritime Commission Chair Elaine Chao, who in 1989 was named deputy secretary of the USDOT. She now serves as U.S. Transportation Secretary.
Meanwhile, Hamberger’s reputation as an artful, tactful advocate spread. In 1989, Hamberger learned that former Sen. Howard Baker’s public policy law firm was opening a Washington, D.C., office. Known in D.C. as the “Great Conciliator,” Baker, a Tennessee Republican, knew how to broker compromises. Hamberger joined Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell in March 1989. He stayed nine years. The firm’s clients included Federal Express and a couple Class Is.
“Working for Howard Baker — what a great experience,” Hamberger says, citing Baker’s listening and consensus-shaping skills. “He knew how to get to the heart of an issue.”
Hamberger eventually was named managing partner.
“That gave me some valuable management experience,” he says.
In March 1998, M.B. Oglesby Jr. resigned after a brief stint as AAR’s CEO. A headhunter approached Hamberger about the job. Hamberger was intrigued.
By focusing on and representing one transportation industry segment, he’d be able to “dig deeper into issues.” And freight rail, Hamberger had learned, was “the backbone of the economy” — it’d be a good industry to represent, he thought. “Besides, no one doesn’t like railroads,” he figured, recalling, perhaps, those middle-of-the-night train whistles.
“I’d also been wanting to have something that offered a little bit more of an identity, rather than just representing clients,” he says. “I thought, maybe I could have an identity as ‘The Rail Guy.’”
Hamberger assumed his new identity in June 1998. As The Rail Guy, he became the lead advocate for an industry under intense scrutiny, thanks in large part to the mega-merger meltdowns that left some railroads struggling to serve customers. Some shipper groups wanted regulatory or legislative relief ASAP. The debates continued into the mid-2000s.
“It’s an awkward position to be in when you’re at loggerheads with customers at the same time you’re trying to work with them,” Hamberger says. “But it was something we had to work through.”
There would be plenty more issues railroads and shippers would have to work through during the next two decades, as the railroad renaissance hit its peak and as trade patterns and market movements continue to change the way (and how quickly) goods are shipped.
The sides haven’t always agreed and they won’t on some issues. But there’s mostly been peace in the rhetorical valley during the past decade or so of Hamberger’s AAR tenure, shipper advocates acknowledge.
“You like to have adversaries you can deal with straight-up,” says Mike McBride, an attorney and partner in Van Ness Feldman LLP who has represented a range of rail shippers and shipper interests during the past two decades. “Ed is a very honorable guy, an honest guy. We didn’t always agree, but we developed a relationship of trust.”
Meanwhile, Congress hasn’t made significant changes to the Staggers Act during Hamberger’s tenure, which McBride characterizes as “remarkable.” Hamberger gets a “fair amount of credit” for that, he says.
“The CEOs of the railroads have gotten more than their money’s worth out of Ed Hamberger. I really do believe that,” McBride says. “They’ve had a pretty perfect run of it under his tenure.”
Moorman, who retired from NS in 2015, and came out of retirement to helm Amtrak in 2016 before retiring again at 2017’s end, concurs that the AAR is “one of the most effective organizations in Washington.” It helps, he says, that the railroads typically don’t disagree on too many issues.
“Having said that, that very much has been facilitated by Ed in getting people into the conversation and getting them a seat at the table,” Moorman says. “Short lines and regionals, suppliers — all those voices are important.”
So is the voice of labor. Hamberger understands that, SMART’s Stem says.
“When Hamberger came on the scene, he struck me as someone who was sincere,” says Stem, who retired in 2014. “He wasn’t hypocritical. He was an honest broker. And that was the way I found him to be going forward.”
In the mid-2000s, Hamberger invited “all of rail labor in Washington” to come to AAR offices for lunch, Stem says.
“You had all the top legislative staff, four or five union presidents, and five or six national legislative types there,” he says. “There was a lot of interaction. And it was a big reason labor started participating in Railroad Day on Capitol Hill.”
On Railroad Day, railroaders, rail suppliers, rail labor, rail shippers and their representatives descend on Washington, D.C., to persuade Congress to pass legislation that would help expand rail capacity — and reject “re-regulatory” measures the rail lobby insists would limit railroads’ ability to invest in infrastructure. The event’s been held annually since 1999.
The bigger-tent approach has always been part of the plan, says Hamberger. So is putting a premium on stakeholders’ health and welfare. Witness Hamberger’s leadership during the push to get Congress to pass the Railroad Retirement and Survivors’ Improvement Act of 2001.
“Ed came in when railroad retirement reform was on the front burner,” Stem says, noting that Congress “wasn’t initially supportive” of the measure.
The legislation called for providing full retirement annuity at age 60 (instead of 62) after 30 years of service, eliminating artificial caps on benefits, establishing new-employee vesting in the Railroad Retirement System after five years (instead of 10), and raising a widow’s Tier II annuities to equal those paid by Social Security (the previous law set that annuity at 50 percent of a retiree’s Tier II annuity).
“Hamberger understood what was in the best interests of the industry — not the short term, but what would benefit the industry longer term,” Stem says. “He stuck to his guns and we got that done. Without his personality, his integrity — probably his integrity more than anything — we would still be working on railroad retirement today.”
For his part, Hamberger says he’s proud of the work that’s been accomplished during his tenure, “none of which would have been possible without the leadership of our members and the hard work of AAR’s dedicated staff.”
Stem, too, lauds “the people Hamberger has surrounded himself with.”
“There was change in philosophy, an attitude change there, and it made a big difference,” Stem says, citing increased Railroad Safety Advisory Committee cooperation as an example. “Hamberger doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the safety improvement that has come from that.”
One project Hamberger has gotten a certain amount of credit for is the role he played in helping to form the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program.
Launched in 2003, the $4.4 billion CREATE program involves 70 projects designed to separate freight and passenger trains at six key junctions; eliminate about two dozen grade crossings; and increase rail capacity, speed and reliability in the Chicago area. The program is managed via a public-private partnership.
Hamberger’s often referred to as “The Father of CREATE,” an appellation he brushes off.
“CREATE is a collective effort,” he says. “It’s a partnership.”
And it’s a partnership contingent on numerous stakeholders — Class Is, short lines and government entities — agreeing to work together in Chicago.
It also was contingent on Hamberger and his team being able to convince rail officials that the public benefits connected to infrastructure capacity were something the public should help pay for. As of press time, 29 of 70 planned projects in the 15-year-old program had been completed.
“I think CREATE is the poster child for public-private partnerships,” as Hamberger told Progressive Railroading Managing Editor Jeff Stagl in May.
Hamberger also hopes the rail industry one day will be known for adopting and adapting next-level technology — something PTC, once fully implemented, should enable them to do.
On May 15, the association hosted RailxTech, an event featuring demonstrations of cutting-edge technologies, including virtual reality glasses, drones and smart sensors. Exhibitors included BNSF Railway Co., CN, CSX and Union Pacific Railroad.
“How do you take a 200-year-old industry and have it embrace technology? he says. “It’s a long-term challenge.”
But the collective achievement that makes Hamberger the most proud occurred in 2001 shortly after 9/11. Weekly calls with railroad CEOs led to the creation of a four-point security management plan, a command center and more secure rail communications.
“I think that was, or I hope it was, our lasting legacy,” Hamberger says. “Our industry responded quickly. We came up with a plan on our own, we came up with a plan before anyone. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.”
Responsive. Collaborative. Quick to act. That’s also who Hamberger is.
“If there’s an objective for the industry to accomplish, a person or people we want to see in a certain position, or people we want to persuade in a particular argument, Ed understands how Washington works,” Moorman says. “I’m a big Ed Hamberger fan and always have been.”
Hamberger expects industry stakeholders will be big fans of his replacement, if they aren’t already. In September, AAR named Ian Jefferies the next president and CEO. Currently AAR’s senior vice president of government affairs, he’ll take the reins Jan. 1.
Word that Jefferies would be the next leader “was very well received here,” Hamberger says.
“I’m really pleased,” he says. “Ian’s going to do a great job.”
Just as Hamberger has.
“It’s been a great run for him,” McBride says. “He’s going out on top. Not every trade association president can say that.”
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