ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska Railroad President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Sheffield said Tuesday he will retire next month.
In announcing his decision to step down, the former governor said the past year has been ''extremely arduous.''
The railroad has come under fire for a string of derailments and fuel spills during the past two years. Last month a task force appointed by Gov. Tony Knowles said the railroad did not have an adequate safety program and needed to focus on preventing accidents.
''I had considered leaving earlier, but since the accidents happened on my watch, I felt obligated to fix what was wrong before I moved on,'' Sheffield, 72, said.
The state filed criminal charges in July against the railroad for a 2,300 gallon diesel fuel spill at the Anchorage rail yard in February. State prosecutors said railroad workers overrode the safety system on diesel locomotives intended to prevent such spills.
The railroad has also come under criticism from state environmental officials for a 120,000 gallon jet fuel spill that occurred 36 miles north of Talkeetna last December when a train derailed.
Sheffield notified the Alaska Railroad board of his decision at its Monday meeting. He met with railroad employees in Anchorage and Fairbanks Tuesday to talk to them about his decision.
Railroad Board Chairman Johne Binkley says he and Transportation Commissioner Joe Perkins will be looking within Alaska for a replacement for Sheffield. Binkley said he expected the appointment would be made by mid-January, when Sheffield planned to step down.
Binkley said the board was looking for someone with business and government experience, rather than someone with experience running a railroad.
''It's somewhat of a unique position. It's a publicly owned corporation, accountable to the shareholders, which are the people of Alaska. We need someone who's able to work with the Legislature and the local governments we're involved with up and down the line and we want someone with good business acumen,'' Binkley said.
The railroad's day-to-day operations come under the supervision of Loren Mueller, the company's chief operating officer. Mueller was hired earlier this year after serving as operations chief of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
Sheffield has held the top job at the railroad since 1997. Binkley credited him with making much-needed improvements to the line.
The railroad currently has more than 20 capital projects in the works, including upgrading and realigning track between Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley; construction of new depots at Fairbanks, Denali Park and Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and construction of a new freight dock at Seward.
''He's really improved the foundation of the Alaska Railroad. The changes he's made will have an impact on the railroad for the next 20 to 30 years,'' Binkley said. ''Certainly he's improved dramatically the morale within the railroad. We have such a dedicated work force and he has a lot to do with that.''
Sheffield, who was governor of Alaska when the state bought the railroad from the federal government in 1985, said he has no specific plans for his retirement.
''I've been working since I was 14 years old and I've held the two best jobs in Alaska -- the opportunity to serve the public as governor and railroad president. It might take me a while to figure out what I want to do next,'' Sheffield said.
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