CN official lauds company relationship with Homewood

Diverse. Stable. Respectful.

Those are the characteristics of Homewood that attracted Canadian National Railway to the village and persuaded company officials to locate its U.S. training center here, according to John Orr, CN senior vice president of operations. 

  John Orr, CN senior vice
  president of operations, 
  speaks April 19 at 
  Homewood's biennial
  economic development 
(Photo by 
  Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

Orr gave the keynote address April 19 at Homewood's biennial economic development breakfast. He was introduced by Jim Kvedaras of Homewood, CN’s director of government affairs. 

Orr stressed how important CN's training center is to the company — and to Homewood.

He noted the recent Southwest Airlines incident in which an engine exploded in flight. One passenger was killed, but the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, was lauded for making a safe emergency landing with one engine.

"The crisis of Southwest Airlines shows how important it is to be trained," he said.
Orr, formerly the CN chief safety officer, said the company puts a high priority on training so its workers will to be prepared to respond well in similar emergencies.

He said a fatal rail accident in 2008 that was blamed on operator error instigated a renewed national commitment to safety. One result was the Congressional mandate for railroads to develop what's called Positive Train Control (PTC).

Orr said PTC has been a huge, complex project. The program requires that railroads develop systems that will automate train control to compensate for operator error and avoid conditions that contribute to accidents. 

"This is not a program on the shelf," Orr said. "It's a program that all railroads have had to develop."

After one deadline extension, the system is supposed to be completed by the end of 2018 or by the end of 2020 under some circumstances.

That's where Homewood comes in. CN is training its workforce on PTC, and the Homewood center is one of two providing the training. The other is in Winnipeg, Canada.

"Every single person who is hired at CN in the United States comes to Homewood," Orr said.

CN is in the process of investing $1.5 billion in PTC development, he said. 

"Of that $1.5 billion, more than half of it is being spent here. We have built laboratories. We have built communication centers," he said. "We're working with the village and with real estate groups to look for an expansion of our rail traffic control center."

Not only are workers coming to town for training, but academics and technology professionals come here to help with the PTC system development, Orr said.

"We're bringing in people who otherwise wouldn't have seen Homewood. They are decision makers, like I was in 2011," he said, suggesting that some of those people might also be impressed enough to invest in Homewood.

"The reason I chose Homewood as our U.S. base was not on its convenience or proximity to our rail business. It was because of the diversity that I saw, the way Homewood embraced the culture of inclusivity in gender, race and religion," he said. "It's also important that there's stability. It's a law-and-order minded community. The contribution of police and fire departments is important."

Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld said on Saturday, May 5, that village officials have been in talks recently with CN about finding expansion space.


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