Charles Hoppe, who presided over the Long Island Rail Road during a deadly massacre, a blizzard that stranded thousands and a short strike, died Tuesday in Virginia after a series of strokes, his family said. He was 80.
As LIRR president from 1990 to mid-1994, he took a lackluster system, one with dirty cars and late performance, and propelled it into the modern age with dual-powered, double-decker trains and a major renovation of Penn Station.
“Virtually every metric that we measure on a month-to-month basis improved under Chuck Hoppe,” MTA Chairman Thomas F. Prendergast, who succeeded Hoppe as LIRR president, said Thursday. “On-time performance, ridership and equipment reliability were all improved or strengthened during his tenure. He left the region with a railroad that was in a far better shape than it had been.”
Hoppe had trains in his DNA, those who knew him said, and in his long career, he shaped the state of rail service across the country. In the 1970s, he worked for the federal government’s U.S. Railway Association to cobble failing freight companies into the giant Conrail. He worked for the famed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and was a consultant on various rail systems across the country, including the Santa Fe railway in California.
But his son said running the LIRR was the highlight of his career.
“It was a tough job, but it was the highest job you could hope to get for a person who loved railroads, to be the president of one,” said his son Charles Hoppe Jr., of Arlington, Virginia. “He loved doing it. He really believed in the railroad and wanted to make it as good as he could.”
He was instrumental in preserving the name of the nation’s oldest and most complex commuter rail system when the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority discussed renaming the Long Island Rail Road, considering names such as “Metro East,” to dovetail with the Metro-North commuter line.
But Hoppe insisted against it, LIRR historian Dave Morrison said.
“Chuck went to a board meeting and pounded on the table, saying ‘Whatever you do, don’t change the name Long Island Rail Road,’ ” Morrison said. “He explained that the people of Long Island might have a love-hate relationship with the LIRR, but it is still their railroad.”
Hoppe took over a system whose stock of train cars was some 50 years old, with things falling apart and customers complaining of trains being late, dirty and lacking air-conditioning.
He turned around the LIRR’s mindset of trains first into “customers” first, preferring that to the term “passengers” and “riders,” Hoppe Jr. said.
“This concept of ‘breakthrough customer service’ — I remember him saying that a million times,” the son said. “ ‘You gotta make people feel like a customer and not cattle. They’re not just riding the train, they’re paying for a service and you got to treat them like their dollar counts.’ ”
As president, he bought new cars, including ones that could run on diesel, then switch to electric so that passengers could go straight to Penn Station without changing trains in the city.
In the same vein, he launched a blueprint for the railroad’s growth, one that stands to the present day, MTA officials said.
“A direct ride between Penn Station and destinations further east, such as Port Jefferson, Speonk, and now even Montauk, without the need to transfer between trains, was a direct outgrowth of the Network Strategy Study that Hoppe led,” LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said. “We’re now in the early phases of updating the Network Strategy Study to guide the railroad in its post-East Side Access future.”
But despite major improvements, a tumultuous 12 months preceded Hoppe’s departure from the LIRR.
In December 1993, gunman Colin Ferguson opened fire inside train cars as they pulled into Garden City, killing six people, injuring 19 and prompting Hoppe to put more police on the rails as the public debated having metal detectors at stations.
Then a few months later, on Feb. 11, a major storm paralyzed an unprepared LIRR, stranding thousands of commuters at Penn Station and elsewhere while Hoppe was also snowbound at his other home in Arlington. He was blasted for not being in New York, but Hoppe Jr. said his father would have been there if the forecast had not been for just an inch or two of snow.
LIRR workers then went on a brief strike in June 1994, and two months later Hoppe left for a consultant job, taking his last LIRR train ride as president on the inaugural trip of the system’s first dual-powered train.
He grew up in a Cleveland suburb called Rocky River, Ohio, where the train ran through town, and he loved the sounds of the trains clacking by — the more, the better, his son said.
Hoppe was shaped by an era in which rails ruled, taking freight and passengers to distant places and adventures. Over the years, he’d ride trains across the globe, from out-of-the-way steam trains to the Trans-Siberian Express in Russia, just before his first major stroke two years ago.
“It was that sort of pioneering spirit of ‘Go west’ and make your way in the world,” Hoppe Jr. said.
At one point, he applied to be the head of Amtrak and took its trains all across the nation, sending his “travelogues” of what was good, bad and needed to be fixed to the then-head of the passenger railway, the son said.
The train aficionado appeared to commit to memory the schedules of railways across the country and displayed a framed, 1834 LIRR schedule in his home, Hoppe Jr. said.
Even into his retirement, Hoppe kept the train sets he had played with as a boy, and he played with his young granddaughter on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set he bought her, hoping to pass on his love of rails to her, his family said.
“He just loved trains and everything about trains and rails roads and how they worked and didn’t work,” Hoppe’s son said. “He couldn’t have fixed locomotives or anything, but his strength was in figuring out how to make all the locomotives move and go through the switching yards at the right time.”
Besides his son and granddaughter, Hoppe is survived by a brother, Herbert, of Rocky River. Funeral arrangements have not been set.
With Alfonso A. Castillo