In memoriam: Patent-holder, mentor and ‘go-to-guy' Hein leaves a lasting legacy

A lifelong railroader, Russell Hein specialized in trackwork during his 50-year career, the past 20 with Progress Rail.

By Grace Renderman, Associate Editor 

A lifelong railroader and inventor, Russell Hein — Russ to everyone who knew him — died on Jan. 23 from complications of an abdominal aortic aneurysm rupture. He was 71.  

For the past 20 years, Hein served Progress Rail, where he most recently served as technical director. He specialized in inventing and designing special trackwork components during his nearly 50 years in railroading. Seven patents are filed under Hein’s name, including a double point derail switch, a turnout lift frog and a railway diamond wedge crossing with reversible beam castings. 

Growing up in Chicago Heights, Illinois, Hein had a “tough upbringing,” says longtime friend and colleague Scot Campbell. Hein’s father died of a sudden heart attack when Hein was young. 

He entered the railroad industry in 1972 with Abex Railroad Products Corp., where he worked until 1978. He then went to Pettibone Traverse Lift LLC, serving there until 1986. Hein held a slew of other roles with companies and transit agencies over the next 16 years, including at Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Vossloh Cogifer, Conley Frog Switch & Forge Co. and Meridian Rail Services. He joined Progress Rail in 2002. 

“Whenever you needed help, Russ was the guy you'd go to,” says Campbell, who retired but still works part time in sales for Progress Rail. “A lot of times, he'd barely hang up the phone and you'd be getting an email from him with drawings or photographs or something explaining what you'd been talking to him about.” 

A mentor, teacher and 'the real deal'

There was more to Hein than being a railroader. He made his own pizza from scratch and kept the recipe safe from all but a select few, says Carey Eisher, his daughter. Hein loved hockey and played in a local league until his mid-forties. He consistently challenged himself to get the grocery shopping done in record time. Hein loved his family and always pushed them to be their best selves, Eisher says. 

“He taught us all how to be hard workers. That was so important to him,” she says. "He wanted us to be productive members of society. It's ingrained in us.” 

Hein also had two sons — Eric and Mark. As Hein pursued opportunities and his rail career evolved, the family moved around a lot. While Eisher never knew much about the inner workings of his career, she knew he was smart and good at what he did. 

“When I see trains come by, I just think it's him saying, ‘Hi,’” Eisher says. 

Hein was a mentor and teacher to anyone who would listen, says Maggie Kukovich, Progress Rail’s director of Class I sales, engineering and track services. He was the “go-to guy” for any questions about special trackwork, she says. He also led industry efforts to standardize equipment. His car’s license plate even had a special designation labeling him as a “track engineer.” 

Hein also led plant tours at the Progress Rail facility in Sherman, Texas, about 70 miles north of Dallas. Two months before he died, Hein took representatives from BNSF Railway Co. on a tour showcasing his trackwork innovations. Executives decided to return to Progress Rail’s Sherman campus June 16-17 for a second tour because they were impressed with him — and still plan on it despite Hein’s death, Kukovich says. 

“Russ was the real deal,” she says. "There's 95,000 miles of Class I track in the U.S., and there's no rail yard in this industry that Russ Hein did not improve or touch.” 

Progress Rail recently put up a plaque next to Hein’s former office to commemorate his impact on Progress Rail as well as the industry. The company also plans to include his name on the castings of the company’s 136-pound turnout lift frogs, a top-selling product Hein championed, Kukovich says.  

A Celebration of Life ceremony was held in Hein’s honor on March 5 at a rail depot in Denison, Texas, where he lived with his wife of 46 years, Robin. Kukovich and Campbell spoke in his memory in front of more than 100 people who came from all over the country to pay their respects. 

His family never knew “what a big deal” the humble Hein was, Kukovich says. Only after he died did his wife and children realize just how much of an impact Hein made on the industry. 

“It was comforting to know that so many people thought my dad was as important as we thought he was,” Eisher says. 

In addition to his wife and three children, Hein is survived by eight grandchildren: Alex, Hayden, Jacob, Jada, Jaeden, John, Lillian and Regan.