Flying Railwayman

New hand at the throttle of the CPR is W.M. Neal, who kept an express schedule on his climb from office boy to president

JOHN CLARE June 15 1947

Flying Railwayman

New hand at the throttle of the CPR is W.M. Neal, who kept an express schedule on his climb from office boy to president

JOHN CLARE June 15 1947

Flying Railwayman

New hand at the throttle of the CPR is W.M. Neal, who kept an express schedule on his climb from office boy to president


WHEN HE is in Montreal William Merton Neal, who became the sixth president of the Canadian Pacific Railway last February, occupies the spacious office in Windsor Station in which Lord Shaughnessy, Sir Edward Beatty and D. C. Coleman sat before him.

The furniture is massive, plain and rich. The carpet is wine red and thick enough to snowshoe through. The dark panelled decor suggests an expensive composite of a bishop’s study and a board

room. Mr. Neal’s desk is as clean of paper as the flight deck of a flat top and is slightly smaller.

As head man of a unique billion-and-a-halfdollar corporation Mr. Neal is more than a railroader. He runs the one company in the world that has not only a transcontinental railroad but also a far-flung airline, an ocean fleet that is reaching out again around the globe, a hotel chain and more than 100 subsidiaries that turn out such assorted items as fertilizers and silk screen reproductions of Canadian art.

Mr. Neal himself is friendly and his rapid forceful talk gives the impression that he is as full of drive as one of his Royal Hudson locomotives. An

enthusiastic athlete as a young man, the new president is still in condition. He is solidly built without being fat (weight, about 170). He is of medium height and is bald. He laughs easily and when he gets angry, which is seldom and only when someone seems determined to impress him with their incompetence, he has been described as quietly chilling.

Mr. Neal has one of those memories that never spills a drop. He can remember improbable things, like the day and the hour he last met you five years ago, hut he doesn’t do it just to impress people. It’s part of his training and his prodigious memory has been an important factor in his success. In conferences when other men wished they had the papers they left in their other brief case Neal could consult the filing cabinet of his memory. This was extremely handy and made a pleasant impression on his bosses. Now that he is the boss his juniors shake their heads and wonder how he does it.

Sir Edward Beatty wore aloofness and an air of mystery. D. C. Coleman was shy. Neal is like neither. When he leaves his panelled office, which is often, he walks briskly through the long halls of Windsor Station and often stops at an office to leave a memo or letter that had to be delivered anyway. Office workers, accustomed to presidents who keep their place, have recently been slightly shaken to have “W. M.” pop a letter on their desk and fling them a cheery word on the way by.

In Montreal Neal and his wife, the former Frances Scott of Renfrew, Ont., whom he married in 1910, live alone in a five-room apartment on Sherbrooke Street West. It’s in one of the better apartment houses, but when you consider that the president of the CPR gets $75,000 a year it could be called modest. They have no servants and do most of their entertaining, which isn’t much, at the nearby swank Mount Royal Club.

Neal arrives at his office about nine but often stays late. On these nights he is likely to call “Fanny,” his wife, and the two of them will have dinner downtown and go to a show.

The Neals have two children living in Winnipeg. Scott is a lawyer. Betty was a nurse with the RCAMC and served overseas. Both are married. There are four grandchildren. A second son, Jack, lost his life when the RCAF1 Lancaster he piloted crashed in Belgium.

This March Mrs. Neal went to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth to visit their son’s grave. While she was gone Mr. Neal continued to live at the apartment cared for by Harold Courtney, a small elderly Englishman, who has been the steward on Mr. Neal’s private car for many years.

Like most business car stewards Courtney is an autocrat; like all good cooks he is slightly tyrannical. “When we were kids in Winnipeg we used to go around his car looking for a snack and Harold used to scare the wits out of us,” Neal recalls. Even today the relationship is still slightly weighted in favor of the slightly acidic Mr. Courtney.

“I gained three pounds the first week he was cooking for me,” said Neal recently. “What can you do? He’s a wonderful cook and he insists upon cooking these fine things to eat. You should see his pancakes. That thick . . . fluffy.”

Since he has become president Neal has a driver for his car— a Cadillac.

“I never liked driving anyway,” he says.

Officially he has never piloted an aircraft but there is reason to believe that his friend Grant McConachie, 37-year-old president of Canadian Pacific Airlines, let him take the wheel once in a while. But that was in the bush flying days of the line. Now everything is procedure—safe and laid down according to the book. Neal says he can stick his head into the cockpit just to see how things are going but gone are the days when he could slide into the second pilot’s seat with the joy of a small boy going under the flap of the big top at the circus.

He likes to talk about flying and one of his stories came out of a trip he took through the north country on one of CPA’s Dakotas. The aircraft landed at a U. S. Army field and it was greeted by a tough and worried U. S. master sergeant.

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Flying Railwayman

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“Who’s in charge of this airplane?” he asked.

Neal said he was—in a way.

“Well, you can’t stay here tonight, Mac,” said the sergeant nodding in the direction of the trim and pretty stewardess who was coming out of the plane. “I got 400 men here who haven’t seen a woman for a year. She’s too pretty and I don’t want any trouble.”

Neal didn’t want any trouble either so he said they would go on and spend the night at the next staging post.

“And say, Mac,” said the top sergeant looking at the stewardess with an expression of mild outrage. “Tell her to do something about her stockings •—I can’t stand to see a dame with crooked seams.”

All through the north Neal slept in bunkhouses with the other men of the plane’s crew. He could have had special accommodation but he likes being with the men he’s working with. In fact his new job has him worried; he won’t see as much of the boys as he used to.

When he was on the road as western vice-president he would often finish a day’s hard work in his car and then go for a prowl around the yards where the car was set out. Roundhouse workers sometimes straightened up from their work to see Bill Neal standing near them waiting to chat. When he asked about the little girl who had been sick they knew it was no act. Neal never played the patronizing role of a squire with his railroaders. He knew the name of the little girl and probably remembered the name of the doll she once showed him, too.

The Neals vacation at Christie Lake, near Smiths Falls, Ont., where they’ve been going to a summer cottage for 15 years. One of his favorite sports was to churn the lake at an industrious crawl. Last year he was in the water on March 15.

But that was before the doctors told him to ease up. About a year ago he was taken off the train at Nelson, B.C. on his way to the coast. His heart was affected but he’s all right now. Only he has to take it a little easier.

“No more swimming through the ice, the doctor says,” Neal remarked wistfully.

His swimming caused a minor panic one morning in the president’s car when he was travelling with Sir Edward Beatty on an inspection trip. The car was set out on a siding near a lake. Neal got up early and went for a swim. He was fond of swimming under water and was good at it. He submerged, not far off shore, just as Sir Edward’s steward came to the door of the car to empty some garbage. The steward paused to admire the placid mountain lake when Neal’s bald head thrust through the mirrorlike surface of the water.

The steward, who was English, fled in some alarm to report “a ruddy porpoise in the lyke.”

Ideas Come at Night

When Neal played golf he shot in the middle 80’s, but he has given up the game, and riding too. Some years ago lie gave up smoking. When he was younger he took an occasional drink, according to his friends. Now he contents himself with being a good host.

Neal has never had a full night’ssleep so far as he can remember. It’s not bad health; it’s just that he always wakes up for an hour or so in the middle of the night. If he goes to bed at 11 he will probably wake up at 2.30 and read for

an hour or so and then go back to sleep. As a reader his appetite is voracious and omnivorous. He likes to get up early and sometimes breakfasts at 6.50 or seven and has another hour’s sleep before rising for the day.

“I don’t know if there is any psychological basis for this but I find if 1 have a difficult letter to write or a problem that is worrying me and I go to sleep thinking about them I will often waken with the problem solved or the letter written in my mind,” he says.

He has retained his youthful skill as a typist and he keeps a typewriter near him in case his subconscious wakens him with the answer to a tough one he handed it just before he went to sleep.

CPR officials are accustomed to receiving memos in W. M. Neal’s own typewriting, dictated to himself in the middle of the night.

Today these midnight memos are frequent, crisp and searching as the CPR picks up speed with Bill Neal at the throttle.

Yet it was what Neal calls “straight happenchance” that he got. into railroading at all. He was born in Toronto June 20, 1886. He can’t remember mooning unduly about becoming an engineer during his schooldays at Wellesley School in that city. At 13 he left school to prepare himself for what looked like a pretty sedentary life. In return for running errands and emptying wastebaskets the Dominion Business College taught him shorthand and typing.

When he was 16 Neal, a Presbyterian, heard that a clerk was needed at the Methodist Bookroom and he went down to apply for the job.

“At the door I met Alfred Price, who was CPR superintendent in Toronto,”

Neal recalls, “He knew me slightly and he asked me ‘What are jmu doing here, Willie?’ I told him and he said, “You don’t want to work here; how about working for the CPR?”

Willie thought about it for a moment and went to work for the CPR as an office boy in 1902.

When Mr. Price was transferred to Winnipeg in 1904 he asked Willie Neal to come along as his secretary. Neal liked the life in the new west where there were many young men like himself, out from the east making their careers. He still thinks of himself as a westerner.

In Winnipeg young Neal entered the transportation branch of railroading. Here he was at the nerve centre. The transportation branch deals with the assignment of rolling stock and motive power. It is regarded as the most difficult pha e in railroading and has much to do with the success of a road.

Promotion Comes Fast

Neal returned to the east in 1917 when he was transferred to Montreal as acting superintendent of cars. In the same year he was leaned by the CPR to the newly formed Canadian Railway Board to act as secretary. The board, composed of representatives of all railroads in Canada, had the job of allocating rolling stock to meet the great demands made by the war.

It wasn’t long before Secretary Neal was the board. It was Neal who told chief despatchers they had to have a hundred cars at the lakehead by such and such a date or else. His passion for detail, his almost flawless memory and curious bent for doing more than he was asked to do made him a popular member of the board.

About this time the CPR high command realized what a valuable property they had in Neal; they could hardly wait to get him hack. Oldtimers with the company say he was marked for the top from the time he returned to the company. At any rate the record shows his chiefs piled on all the work and promotion and work Neal and the traffic would bear. In 1924 he went back to Winnipeg as general manager and later vice-president in charge of western lines.

When he left Winnipeg in 1942 to return east as vice-president and a director of the company he asked, when offered a going-away gift, that it take the form of a needed piece of medical equipment for the children’s section of Winnipeg Hospital.

Neal moved into the presidential office last February and already his ideas are flicking through the organization like the lights on a busy switchhoard. He has started a research branch, headed Jiy William Newman, former chief of Federal Aircraft. This branch is working with the CNR and other roads on such new equipment as the coal gas turbine engine, which may revolutionize motive power.

He has started a health plan which Is operating only at the top at the moment but will extend through the whole company. The running trades— brakemen, engineers etc.—have, of course, always had strict physical checkups. Rut this plan will help to keep employees healthy, tell them, when necessary, to slow down before their health goes off the rails.

Mr. Neal could retire four years from now, when he reaches the retiring age of 65, but the betting is that he won’t.

Against the day he will retire, however, he is building up a strong, capable team to take over; he is putting the accent on youth on the operations and plans of the railway.

In the CPR, which is supposed to pick its presidents 20 years before they actually move into the front office, there are many young men of promise. One of them is Allan MacDonald, 33, who was a superintendent at 32 and is now Neal’s assistant. He was Neal’s secretary for 10 years. Another is the vice-president of eastern lines, N.R. Crump, 41. Around the CPR they say this capable young railroader has already been given the nod as crown prince.

With a view to cashing in on youthful dynamism, Neal has set up a radically new group known as the steering committee which held its first, meeting as this was written. The steering committee is compost'd of eightjunior executives, all but one of them under 40. Their job is to work out problems handed to them by the board of strategy, composed of the vicepresidents and heads of departments and led by Neal himself.

The steering committee has been given the widest powers of investigation. The members may call in any officer of the company in their search for the answers to what may he million-dollar questions.

How Far Can CP Fly?

One of the million-dollar problems for Neal and his young men is the uncertain future of Canadian Pacific Airlines. Neal became interested in flying when he was in the West. As a pioneer of CPA he shared the dreams of the men who made a first-class air service out of a bundle of assorted airlines and hush flying services. Most of the airline’s builders were ready to concede the transcontinental franchise to TCA not that they had any choice in the matter—but many of them, including

Neal, looked to the day when CPA would go overseas.

They hoped to see Grant McConachie’s Yukon Southern drive like an arrow over the rim of the world to Moscow and the capitals cf Europe. On an inspection trip in 1943, when McConachie was flying him through the north, Neal told him he wanted to see Russia. So McConachie flew him over Bering Straits. They saw Russia— a shadow in the distance.

“I saw it anyway,” says Neal. “Its hard to say when we’ll have that service now. Maybe not in my lifetime.”

At the moment the whole future of CPA is as dim and shadowy as the Russian coastline was to Neal in 1943. After announcing in 1944 that the railroads could not own airlines, Hon. C. D. Howe granted a stay of execution for a year. Still another year’s delay was granted and Howe indicated he had changed his mind about the divorcement.

The break would be fatal to CPA, its men believe. TCA could carry on, probably at greater expense, but the younger line might well wither and die. A final disposition of the issue is expected at this session of Parliament. In the meantime CPA is sitting tight, running its airline,avoiding anything in the way of promotion or expansion— and hoping.

If the verdict is in favor cf the existing ownership of airlines by railroads, observers believe CPA can thank their chairman, W. M. Neal. Howe respects Neal tremendously. They talk the same language, get along well together. Howe named Neal to the Combined Production and Resources Board of Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States and doesn’t want him to leave, although the double duty places a heavy burden on the railway president.

Railroader Neal travels almost exclusively by air. He first flew in 1940. Now his business car, Assinaboine, spends most of its time in the yards— all iced up and no place to go—while Mr. Neal travels in one of the Lodestars of Quebec Airlines, a part of CPA. Officially he has not substituted a private plane fer a business car. But

whenever he calls—the test plane Is available.

He was heard to remark not long ago that apart from the annual transCanada trip of inspection made with the directors, usually in August, he doubts if he will ever use the car extensively again.

His part-time war job as chairman of the transportation equipment committee of the Combined Resources Board made it necessary for him to spend considerable time in Ottawa. As this is written he is still a member of the board, which allocates material to the manufacture of rolling stock for Europe. Travelling by air, he can leave his office in the Windsor Station, Montreal, after a morning’s work and do a good half-day’s business a this Ottawa office.

Fleet to Flotilla

At sea the CPR has a flotilla where once it had a fleet. Out of 18 ships handed over to the Admiralty during the war 10 were lost. Three new Beaver type freighters have been built and are in service on the Atlantic. Another is expected to be delivered soon. Three freighters have been bought from the British since the war.

Of all the proud Empresses only the Scotland—formerly the Japan—and the Australia are left. Both are still with the Admiralty. The proudest of them all, the Empress of Britain, of course,’ is gone, sunk by Nazi bombs.

“A shudder ran through the whole company when we lost her,” Mr. Neal recalls. D. C. Coleman wept when he informed the hoard of directors of the loss of the great liner.

The Duchess of Richmond has been renamed Empress of Canada; she returned to the Atlantic service in May, the first passenger ship of the line to sail since the war under the company’s bunting. The Duchess of Bedford, the other surviving Duchess, has been renamed Empress of India and will return to the Atlantic later in the year. There will not be another Empress of Britain for a while—perhaps never.

Did the CPR plan more luxury ships? Mr. Neal was asked recently.

“What do you mean luxury ships? All our passenger ships are luxurious,” he said.

But the future of the big-name liner is obscure. Its day may be done. Nowhere in the world is there a ship as big as 30,000 tons being built today.

Mr. Neal thinks its going to take a while for travel to settle down and for each method to find its own level. Air travel, like any new method, will create a good deal of new business for itself. But that still leaves a nice little business for trains and ships from people who aren’t in a hurry, who want more comfort and think air travel isn’t safe enough yet.

Since all ships must concede the advantage of time to the airliner it is possible that the liner of the future will be a leisurely, luxurious vessel of moderate tonnage.

In the meantime the CPR has not made any definite plans. It is watching, experimenting and getting ready to take advantage of new trends and perhaps shape a trend or two on the side itself.

No More “Chinese Bunks”

In the matter of train equipment the company’s efforts are frustrated by the universal difficulty of getting steel and other materials. But while the company is awaiting delivery of 500 sleeping cars ordered last year, it is carrying on an extensive program of conversion. The old style sleeping car with curtained berths (Mr. Neal calls them “Chinese bunks”) is out. The new cars will be built and the old ones converted to the roomette type. Comfort, privacy and safety are being stressed.

To those who shriek with derision at Canada’s passenger trains, which look like passenger trains and not bullets on wheels, Mr. Neal says, “Wait a minute.” It still has to be proven that the streamliner will work under Canadian conditions. For one thing they’re hard to heat. They cost a million and a half a train and it takes seven trains to keep a transcontinental service going. And Canada is a country of only 12 million.

These things have to be considered and they are receiving the most careful and scientific study. It doesn’t mean Canada isn’t going to get some of the new equipment, flossy as a sandwich bar. It does mean Mr. Neal and his associates are taking a long look at the turning wheels of transportation before they lay any bets. And they have to keep the airplane in mind.

“If a man wants to get from Montreal to Vancouver in a hurry of course he’s going to travel by air,” Neal said recently.

Remarks like this make some old railroad men, who sometimes feel like shaking their fists at the shadows cast by airliners, shudder ike a caboose with four flat wheels. Remarks like this also make it clear that Mr. Neal is a new kind of railroader—a transportation man.

“The future of transportation in Canada depends on the integration of all forms of travel—air, rail, highway and water.” says Mr. Neal. They must all complement each other for each has its function in the transportation scheme. Through competition, technical development and the ability to provide the best transportation at the lowest cost each will take its proper place. ★