Shall Canada Re-engage Sir Henry?
The Dominion's contract with the “boss” of the Canadian National Railways expires in a few months. Does Canada want to retain Sir Henry? Does Sir Henry want to retain his “job”?
John Nelson frankly admits that he was prejudiced against Sir Henry Thornton, until he had the opportunity of meeting him, and spending some time in his company, on the recent risit to the Peace River country. Since that trip this well-known Vancouver journalist has become an ardent advocate of Sir Henry and his policies. His article which follows shows this. There have been many criticisms of Sir Henry. Many laudatory commendations. He has been charged
with extravagance and autocracy, perhaps unjustly. But his courage, his personal tact, his grasp of railway problems, his capacity for tremendously concentrated work, have not been seriously questioned. This article gives Mr. Nelson’s personal views, but expresses very clearly what many Canadians are thinking. It is a tremendous question for Canada: What
is the future of our National Railways?—J.V.M.
IN ALL Canada there are but two governmental officials who
draw salaries of $50,000 a year. One, the GovernorGeneral, is selected by the Imperial government, and is a fixture. The other, the president of the Canadian railway system, is an appointee of the government, and is experimental. His three-year term will end in a few months. Whether the experiment will be renewed, or the president retained, or whether both will be continued, is the subject of much speculation in political and transportation circles. The present session of parliament is likely to bring the matter prominently before the Canadian people. Interest and attention will focus on the
personality and the record of Sir Henry
Thornton and will throw the figure of that official into sharp relief.
There is a great gulf fixed between the responsibilities of the two officers mentioned.
The duties of one are passive; of the other, extremely active.
The GovernorGeneral lives in a rather uncomfortable old house in Otta-
wa, is charged with functions, formal and social, and occasionally, in good weather, takes excursions to other parts of Canada.
The other has his nominal headquarters in Montreal and is supposed to live there. But for much of the time he lives in Car 99. Those numbers are all that distinguish it externally from other private cars. But inside it has a bedstead instead of a berth (for its occupant is a blonde giant), and a shower bath. The shower disappeared last summer, when the Prince of Wales took possession of the car, for he sticks literally to the Englishman’s “tub.” No. 99 is an office, a reception hall, a diner, a kitchen, a dormitory, and a technical department all rolled into one. One end is an imposing room, tastefully furnished. That is for the public. In the other end are stored engineers, secretaries, cooks and kitchens. Between these is a dining room smaller than a laborer’s kitchen. In these cramped quarters for many months of each year Sir Henry works, eats, bathes, sleeps, and otherwise has his circumscribed being. He is jolted to sleep by the jerks of a locomotive and lullabied by the shrill grip of the air brakes.
That is one of the penalties of the job. He is administering an asset that cost Canada $1,582,000,000, outside of cash subsidies of $41,000,000 and huge land grants. He is annually spending more money than the Dominion itself expended on Consolidated Revenue Account two or three years ago. The property sprawls over an area of 22,000 miles, with 4,000 miles of track in the United States. His army of a hundred thousand employees is scattered in all parts of a continent. He answers to more than eight million shareholders. A proposal for every mile of extension, every dollar of betterment, has to be approved by parliament, run the gamut of political ambuscades,and stand the risk of “being twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”
a trap A responsibility like
that takes some knowing. And Sir Henry does not spare himself in the learning. From Rupert to Halifax, from Vancouver to St. John, this itinerant administrator is constantly on the go. His longest stops are at Ottawa, for there, during the session, he is constantly at the call of a much lower salaried Minister,
and under the close scrutiny of a none too friendly Opposition. Experts, secretaries, and engineers travel with him. There is a radio on his car. He listens in, prudently, on both Montreal and Ottawa. The news of the death of Hon. Frank Carvell, late chairman of the Railway Board, came to him from the air one hot Sunday afternoon in August as his train slowly climbed from the valley of the Little Smoky river to the spacious prairies of the Peace.
Thus he learns Canada, which he had never seen until he took office. He is learning also to apply railroading to wide and sparsely-populated spaces. This is a new task. For twenty years on the Pennsylvania Railroad he saw traffic handled in the congested part of t h e States. He helped to build the great station of that line in the heart of New York to accommodate its teeming trade. He came to Canada fresh from the management of the Great Eastern Railway in England, with steamships and hotels, with the greatest passenger traffic in the world, and with 76,000,000 people passing through its London terminals every year. From the United States with 400 people, and from the United Kingdom with 2,000 people for every mile of railway, he turned to Canada which carries a mile of railroad on the backs
of every 200 of its inhabitants.
That in itself involved mental adjustments of a radical kind. But that was a small part of his task. He had to consolidate three great railway systems, all losing heavily, and often in competition with one another. He had to co-ordinate three staffs into one competent one. Every time he filled a post in the unified roads with a selection from one, he excited the resentment of the rest. If he went outside, he antagonized all. He was given a chain of hotels—all losing money. He found merchant ships on his doorstep—the backwater of the war—but they brought only bigger losses. In prospect he saw another line—that to Hudson’s Bay—with more deficits. Every section wanted more branches. The ordinary wage demands of labor were accentuated by protests against a previous order, that employees should not enter public life. The Crow’s Nest issue was a burning one, controversial in principle, irksome and grotesque in its application.
'T'HERE were more delicate problems still. He was ^ selected by the present government; he superseded the selection of a previous government and of another party. The natural attitude of the Opposition was one of hostility. It was equally natural for Liberals to convince themselves, and to try and convince Sir Henry, that his personal interests, the interests of the railroad, and the interests of the government were one and indivisible. Though he was given a directorate, occupationally and geographically designed more for political prestige than administrative efficiency, he was assured by the Prime Minister that he would be free from party control or influence. Thumbscrew and stake would not, probably, extort from Sir Henry the truth as to how far that undertaking has been kept. As politics is played it is “a hard saying.” But it would seem significant that Sir Henry at frequent intervals deems it wise to remind the public that immunity from political control is fundamental in administering the system successfully.
It is also significant that, perhaps unconsciously, Canada’s national railway head has been quietly “selling himself” to the people themselves. “If the Chief did nothing but meet the public,” said one of his principal lieutenants, “he would be well worth his salary to the Canadian National.”
There is an old story of Gladstone that when he took the seals of office, he asked his wife, who had been his life-long confidante:
“Shall I tell you everything, and you say nothing, or shall I tell you nothing and let you say what you like?” Some such problem confronted the C.N. head. His officers tell of a conference shortly after he took office when he asked them:
“Shall we run this road on a strictly business basis, and without reference to any outside our administrative staff? Or shall we take the people, the owners, fully into our confidence, and tell them our plans and our experiences?”
One of the oldest officers replied:
“Perfect frankness is the right policy. Few can do it. I am sure I could not. But I believe Sir Henry can.” It was so decided. Good relations with the men; good relations with the railway’s clientele—these were made - fundamental. One, in a sense, hinged on the other. Rolling stock and service were at once improved. To secure the latter the manager used everything from house organ to merit straps. He wholesaled radio sets on small payment plans to every employee who could buy. It was a boon especially compensating to those on the railway’s remote frontiers.
Talking Over the Radio
BUT the head of the line capitalizes it. Often for half an hour he talks over it, telling his thousands of assistants about the road—its successes, its plans, its hopes and policies. A patron writes him in gratitude for the attention his mother, in traveling, received from a certain porter on a specified car. The president relays the compliment on to the whole system and every porter has a new pride and interest in his work. He compliments the operating staff on the low percentage of car casualties for the past month, perhaps the lowest on the continent, and instantly a fresh incentive for efficiency thrills from end to end of the system. His chief officers relieve him, and talk of other details, and often end with a description of some section of Canada, of its attractions, and of the facilities the road furnishes to reach it, which is picked up in far districts of the United States, with resultant benefit to the passenger department. He associates a great army of men with him in his plans and policies. They not only know his plans, and his features (through newspaper cuts) -but the very tones of his voice are familiar to the section boss at a water tank when the president steps down to greet him.
Thus he gets his men working together. His officers he encourages to play together.
“I don’t want to work with a man I can’t play with,” he says.
So he sets up golf and other tourneys among them, to create team spirit. He draws his partner and turns in his handicap with the rest, though his liking for golf falls far short of a passion. He prefers tennis, in which he excells, and where he can get his exercise in more condensed form.
The effect of all this is noteworthy. Within a short time there has been created something unusual in public owned utilities, namely, high morale among the employees, and corresponding keenness in developing business. The Canadian National is to-day receiving great accessions of revenues from the sentiment which has run from one end of Canada to the other: ‘‘This is our road; let us patronize it.”
The Over-Crowded Lower Rungs
ON THE records of the University of Pennsylvania when he graduated, young Thornton left no mark of high scholarship. Not that he was an indifferent student. But the varsity team needed his stalwart frame, as guard, and that seemed more important. He afterwards noticed that the most brilliant student of his year never got beyond a $1,200 mastership in a
“I will put you to work on the first of September,” that officer told him. “In two years both you and I will know whether you are good for anything or not.
Remember there is always room at the top; the bottom is overcrowded already.”
While waiting for this job he acted as coach for the football team at Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee. These enthusiasts paid him $100 a week. He was rather shocked when he took up his duties with the Pennsylvania Central to find he was only worth, for its more practical purposes, $50 a month.
He worked alongside another boy, now head of a steamship line on the Great Lakes, in the draughting office. He was doing well there, but one day recalled the advice of his old science master:
“Thornton, if you ever get a job as a draughtsman, and are good at it, for Heaven’s sake keep it dark, or they will keep you at it all your life.”
So he went to another branch.
And there he got a great opportunity. His chief selected several young university men in his employ, and passed them through every branchtrack laying, stationmaster, dispatcher, accountant, manifesting, engine driving, conducting,— with instructions to master prin-
his year never got beyond a high school, while its most incorrigible member drew a huge salary as a corporation counsel in New York. One of the trustees, a football fan, sent him with a letter to the head of the Pennsylvania line of which he afterwards became a leading officer. ciples and submit a syllabus of study and instruction for the use of learners in each department. He spent two or three years in this invaluable school.
This experience, as well as temperament, probably explains his impatience with detail, and his penchant for the large problems of transportation. His door is always open to executive chiefs; but he refuses to do their tasks.
“That is your work; why bring it to me?” he will say. “Harriman killed himself with detail; I don’t propose to,” he once said.
On a scow in midstream on one of Canada’s mightiest rivers, thousands of miles from his office, he asked a question that brought about him several of his engineers with elaborate charts of tables and distances. He waved them aside. “Bring me one of our folders,” he said, and on a simple map which gave only the broad outlines of half a continent, he was able to get the details for which he had no time in technical documents.
Only Time for Live Problems
ANOTHER characteristic of the C.N.R. chief is his insistence that the “dead past bury its dead.” He concentrates on every problem submitted to him for decision. Once dealt with, he wants to hear no more of it. And woe betide the earnest subordinate who attempts to re-open the subject.
“Why talk of something that’s settled,” he will say. “Let’s get on.”
He is American by birth; British by naturalization, and cosmopolitan by instinct and experience. Not only has he operated roads in three countries; he has done so in both peace and war. When on the outbreak of hostilities, the British government took over all railway lines, he went, with other managers on the administrative staff. For the last two years of the war his headquarters were at Paris and near the front line. He helped plan the evacuation of Paris when the thunder of German'guns at Chateau Thierry shook the windows of his apartments in that city. He cleared troops, guns, equipment, and rolling stock from one front to another. Working in close touch with the late Field Marshal, Sir Henry Wilson, he had illuminating contact with leaders on all fronts, and statesmen in all Allied countries. His task called for firmness and finesse, if even handed justice was to be done all the allies.
“It’s a good thing, Thornton,” said Wilson on one occasion, after a great repulse and retreat by some continental allied troops, “that you didn’t let those fellows have all those railway cars they wanted.”
“Because if you had, they would have retreated further. Now they can only fall back as far and as fast as they can walk.”
This was the varied background, this the ripe experb ence and comprehensive imagination which Sir Henry Thornton brought to Canada less than three years ago.
What were his plans then? What were the hopes of the Canadian people? How far have his plans and their hopes been justified? What has he learned in three years in the Dominion? What is the course for the future?
Sir Henry’s Ambition
WHEN he took office Sir Henry set out his ambitions clearly. He wanted to first co-ordinate Canadian government lines; to efficiently staff them; to overtake their deficits, and eliminate them; to develop the railway in order to develop the country. To that end he hoped for generous immigration, for the expansion of individual effort, for increased production, for the development of natural resources, for the construction of necessary branch lines.
Four things he set down as fundamental to good railroading. They were: adequate net receipts, development of the property to meet the burdens of future traffic, good relations with employees and good relations with the public.
The last three he has undoubtedly accomplished. His operating ratio has been reduced. The financial story of the three years is told in the following figures. Those for 1924 are approximate and unofficial. They have been affected by the depression: Earnings: 1922 1923 1924
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Shall Canada Re-engage Sir Henry?
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$ $ $ Gross 234,059,025 254,926,456 235,000,000 Net... 2,886,711 20,236,563 18,000,000 Operating
Ratio 98.77% 92.06% 92.5%
Immigration and most of the other factors he mentioned are not controllable by his office.
No plans for the future can ignore the relationship which the operation of the government roads has upon its great private-owned and successful competitor, the C.P.R. A prominent London banker, at the farewell banquet to Sir Henry, when he left the metropolis, expressed the hope that under that gentleman’s management the road would be so successful that ultimately the government might sell it back into private hands. That doubtless was a general hope. It is allied to another view, namely, that mounting revenues and decreasing deficits on the government line may be attended by the opposite effects on the C.P.R., the price of whose stocks and bonds is as much a barometer of Canadian conditions as of the earnings on the government’s own line.
On that point it is known that Sir Henry feels that there is ample scope in Canada for both systems, and sees no reason why the success of one should in any sense result in disaster to the other. These two great railways are, of course, in competition with each other, but, as he has frequently said, the competition should be limited to those things that improve the services, and excite a constantly increasing usefulness to the people of Canada.
Sir Henry does not, however, hesitate to hold that conditions in Canada make impossible mileage rates as low as in countries of more congested populations. And this opens up a large field of conjecture on lines exactly opposite to those of the London banker. It prompts the speculation as to whether a time may come when Canada may acquire not one but all her railway and steamship systems not primarily as sources of profit but as media for the colonization and development of the country at large. In a country with Canada’s physical form, so obstinate in the obstacles it presents to national unity, the question is not outside the realm of the practical.
It may even be a consideration when, in October next, the government is again obliged to deliberate on what its policy for the Canadian National Railway system is to be in the future and who is to administer it.