Influential investor Bill Ackman wants retired railway legend Hunter Harrison to put his former adversary, Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.(CP-T68.792.273.41%), back on track.

According to people familiar with the strategy of Mr. Ackman’s New York hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management LP, the high-profile shareholder activist recently recommended to CP’s board that Mr. Harrison, 67, replace the railway’s chief executive officer, Fred Green. Pershing Square began accumulating in September what is now a 14.2 per cent stake in the railway.

Mr. Harrison, who began his career scrambling under trains in Tennessee to oil wheel gears, led a widely admired turnaround of Canadian National Railway from 2003 to 2009 as CEO, and before that at Illinois Central Railroad. Sources said Mr. Harrison and Mr. Ackman have had some initial discussions and the retired executive has expressed interest in returning to work.

By campaigning for Mr. Harrison, Mr. Ackman is apparently betting that the veteran railway executive will be able to leverage his reputation and experience to push for significant profit gains and operating efficiencies at a railway that has the poorest performance records of major North American railways. If Mr. Harrison is hired, shareholders can expect an immediate boost to CP’s stock price and an ambitious strategy to cut costs and speed up train operations that echo his successful transformations at CN and Illinois Central.

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