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Charles "Rick" Moorman, chairman of the board of Norfolk Southern Railroad, rode an excursion train Wednesday from Chattanooga to LaFayette.

 

Charles "Wick" Moorman says he was a kid who loved trains.

At age 18, while studying civil engineering at Georgia Tech in 1970, he got a "co-op," or internship Southern Railway, the precursor to Norfolk Southern Railroad.

Moorman stepped down in 2013 as president and CEO of Norfolk Southern, a 30,000-employee company that's the nation's fourth-largest railroad. He's still executive chairman of the board.

So how does a kid who loved trains climb to the top conductor job of one of the country's biggest railroads.

"Just pure, dumb luck all the way," Moorman said Wednesday, as he rode on a Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum excursion train full of members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. They're in Chattanooga this week for their annual convention.

"I always tell people, anyone who becomes CEO of a company, [they're disingenuous] if they don't tell you how lucky they are to have gotten their jobs." said Moorman, who took the helm in 2006. "It's a lot of right time, right place — all that sort of stuff."

Moorman looked back over his career, dismissed his railroad's declining coal shipments as a temporary "blip," and talked about how Norfolk Southern has embraced its history — including it help in fixing up the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum's Mikado-type steam locomotive 4501 that was built in 1911.

Coal shipments used to make up more than 20 percent of Norfolk Southern's volume, Moorman said, but they've been down every year for about three years. Coal volume fell to about 15 percent in the first quarter of 2015, company officials say.

"The thing that has cut coal [shipments] in this country more than anything else is cheap natural gas," Moorman said, referring to gas produced domestically by hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

"It's one of those blips that you ride through," he said. "We're doing fine."

These are good times for the railroad industry, said Bill Schafer, a retiree who had a 40-year career in the railroad business that ended as director of strategic planning for Norfolk Southern.

"It's as prosperous as it's ever been," Schafer said on the train trip. He travels with his wife Linda, another former Norfolk Southern retiree, from their home in Virginia Beach, Va., to volunteer at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.

The past 12 years have seen a resurgence of the railroad business, Moorman said, and Norfolk Southern has invested about $500 million in infrastructure.

"You hear all this stuff about crumbling U.S. infrastructure — that's not true with the railroad business," he said.

The railroad industry also gained luster when billionaire investor Warren Buffett in 2009 bought the Burlington Northern Sante Fe line.

"When he said railroads are a good investment, that's a big thing," Moorman said.

Norfolk Southern played up its history and heritage during Moorman's tenure, including with the creation in 2012 a "heritage fleet" of locomotives painted with the colors and logos of the 20 predecessor railroads that Norfolk Southern absorbed over the years, including Central of Georgia, Southern and Wabash Railroad.

"These are not things that cost us a lot of money," Moorman said. "What we've done is very positive, but it's been in the context of not spending a whole lot of money."

He said he believes the saying on a poster that he once got as a gift, that "deep in the heart of every American, there is a steam locomotive."

"Fifty years ago, everybody had a relative who worked for the railroad," he said.

Moorman praised the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, which in addition to running excursion steam trains, operates the Tyner Terminal Railway, a for-profit subsidiary that handles all the train traffic at Enterprise South Industrial Park. Tyner Terminal Railway moves freight through the industrial park to main railway lines, including Passats made at the Volkswagen assembly plant and sweetener products delivered to the Archer Daniels Midland Company terminal.

"This is really one of the premier railroad museums," Moorman said. "They're a business, and they're run like a business."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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