Friday, October 30, 2015

Authority can be delegated. Responsibility cannot

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Authority can be delegated. Responsibility cannot

Editor’s note: The following is David Schanoes’s presentation, “Better, Safer Railroading: 10% Planning, 90% Execution,” at Railway Age’s 2015 Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads Conference.

It’s customary at a conference such as this to point out that railroads face huge challenges in the future—challenges to their ability to raise capital, to fund expansions, to provide more efficient and safer service.

We face a challenging financial environment. We face a challenging operating environment. We face a particularly challenging regulatory environment.

Sure thing, but exactly when haven’t railroads faced these enormous challenges? I can’t think of anytime that railroads didn’t face these challenges. I don’t think it’s possible for a railroad to not face these challenges. If we didn’t face these challenges, we wouldn’t be here, or … if we were, we’d be bored to death.

Really, what we do isn’t all that complicated, is it? It’s all about moving goods and people from A to B cheaply without getting anyone hurt. The complications come when we attempt to repeat that simple exercise an unlimited number of times, in any number of variations, in a limited space.

That’s when we encounter problems, issues and conflicts. Sometimes those problems coalesce around a single fact. For passenger trains on freight railroads, that single fact is “overtakes.” Overtakes are capacity killers. Nothing eats up throughput like operating speed differentials.

The problem of overtakes, however, is a subcategory of the bigger issue, which is, how do we deliver safe and efficient train operations in a confined space and within a defined time?

Our business is delivering safe train operations. As I said, the problems, conflicts and issues are the business. That’s why we’re here—to solve the problems, mitigate the issues and reduce the conflicts that threaten safe train operations.

We hire people to solve problems, don’t we? Some 40-odd years ago, I was hired in Chicago during the winter to solve a problem—namely that of the old-timers taking off in January and February for Florida, Arizona, and other locations where wearing shorts and sandals during the winter months was not only not suicidal, but was considered formal dinner wear.

Problem? The PM hump has a vacancy; the midnight pullout has a vacancy; the Weber transfer (my first job on the railroad) is missing a brakeman. Solution? Plug in the body.

That’s how we solve problems. Certainly, we expect those bodies to be able to employ the correct tool, whether it is a brakeman’s lantern or a braking algorithm, to solve the specific problem, but the principle is the same.

Our systems for ensuring safe train operations depend on people, individuals executing individual tasks, separately and in coordination with others.

We offer a service, a train departing Location A at a designated time, stopping at locations X, Y and Z to receive or discharge traffic, and arriving at Location B at a designated time. We repeat those tasks for trains N +1. Once we’ve done that, once we’ve achieved some sort of repeatability, or consistency, what do we have? We have a service plan. Everything on a railroad begins with the service plan. Let me state that again: Everything on a railroad begins with a service plan. Achieving that, bringing that start to a successful conclusion, is where the execution comes in.

Executing that plan requires the integration of all the tasks necessary for the service of any or all trains into an operating plan. That integration is the “super” vision that tracks, records, oversees, catalogs, amends, condenses and ensures the repeatability of all the tasks that create, authorize, and move N +1 trains.

Now let me state my prejudice here openly, explicitly, and without apology. I believe that the person, the integrator of all the tasks essential to safe train operations, is the line officer of the railroad, the trainmaster. I want to state, also explicitly and without apology, that I have always resisted attempts to change the title of that position to something more “modern” or more “sophisticated” or “nicer”—like “operations manager” or “service delivery supervisor.” Trainmaster indicates exactly the authority, and the responsibility that goes with that authority, of the person designated by the railroad as the officer responsible for train operations at any specific location.

Back some 30 odd years ago when I was promoted to trainmaster, the then-General Manager of the railroad told me that he didn’t hire trainmasters; he hired general managers and started them out as trainmasters. Other things he said to me were, on occasion, “get out of my office” or “just shut up,” but that first one—trainmasters as general managers stuck with me. It meant the trainmaster had to know about track, and what the track department needed to execute its tasks for safe train operations. It meant the trainmaster had to know equipment and equipment defects. It meant the trainmaster had to understand signals, and safe braking distance. It meant most of all that the trainmaster had to understand the operating rules of the railroad, what those rules permitted, and what those rules prohibited.

I said earlier that what we do is simple, but it’s the infinite number of times we want to do it in a confined space, and within the constraints of time, that makes for the problems, the conflicts, the issues. The trainmaster exists precisely within that nexus of problems, conflicts and issues. Keep that in mind when someone complains to you about the “impatience” of the trainmaster, or his or her “attitude.”

Everything a trainmaster does is at the intersection of need, expediency, safety and efficiency. Everything he or she does is an attempted mitigation of the conflicts, and all mitigations involve compromise. Anyone who tells you, “We will never compromise safety because of efficiency, performance or financial needs” is putting you on.

We could have a system where all trains are stopped and all signals are red, and we could say that this is the safest condition—but it’s no longer a functioning railroad.

Of course, we compromise safety. We calculate risk. We decide what risks are acceptable. We accept responsibility for those calculations. We put objects of tremendous mass in motion. We operate them at speeds that make it impossible to stop these objects within the range of vision. We operate them with very little separation between them, and we’re always looking for ways to reduce that separation. We introduce rules and systems of train control precisely to manage that compromise.

Now, if someone says: “Operating 20 trains over 5 miles of track at 60 mph within 45 minutes is just as safe as operating 5 trains over the same 5 miles at the same speed in the same 45 minutes,” is that person lying to you? Not at all.

He or she means, ”If we’ve engineered and maintained our track to support 60 mph operation; if we’ve designed our signal system to support headways of 2 minutes; if all 20 train operators comply with all the operating rules applying to signal indications, train speeds, etc; if all the rolling stock is designed and maintained for 60 mph operation; and if all other external circumstances remain the same, then the risk of operating the additional 15 trains within that time period to our service plan is mitigated, or offset, by our operating plan.”

Now that’s the business. It’s the trainmaster’s responsibility, and there’s no way a trainmaster can execute that responsibility without knowing those intimate details of the operation. There is no such thing as “effective management” of a railroad that stands separate and apart from detailed operating knowledge.

Back in the day some 20 years ago, when I was a superintendent, I read a lot about the history of railroads in the U.S., and I encouraged the trainmasters working for me to read about the history. Trainmasters reading books? What a concept!

My favorite historical study then and now is Roger Pickenpaugh’s Rescue By Rail. Pickenpaugh writes of the planning and execution in 1863 that moved the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps of the Army of the Potomac westward to reinforce General William Rosencrans’s Union troops at Chattanooga after the Battle of Chicamauga.

In a meeting with Lincoln, Seward, Chase, and the general-in-chief of the Union Armies, Henry Halleck, Secretary of War Stanton proposed moving 30,000 troops by railroad to Tennessee “in five days.”

Lincoln was skeptical, to put it mildly. Halleck said it would take 40 days.

More than a year earlier, Congress had enacted legislation authorizing the President to “take possession of any or all telegraph lines in the United States, and any or all railroad line in the United States” if and when in the President’s judgment, the public safety required it.

The act was never invoked against the railroads of the North, as the action of Congress made it clear to the executives of those companies that cooperation with the government against the slaveholders’ rebellion was the wise, moral and more profitable course. But the act was used to seize and administer railroads serving the slaveholders’ rebellion in territories taken by the Union Army. The Office of the U.S. Military Railroads was established, and Daniel C. McCallum was appointed director and superintendent.

After Lincoln and Halleck expressed their doubts, Stanton called McCallum into the meeting. A poet, architect, civil engineer, and former general superintendent of the Erie Railroad, McCallum was appointed to his office 1862 by Secretary Stanton. He was awarded the rank of colonel and authorized to “enter upon, take possession of, hold, and use all railroads, engines, cars, locomotives, equipment … that may be required for the transport of troops, arms … military supplies of the United States,” an authority he exercised over the secessionist railroads seized in battle.

McCallum had a bit of advance notice, prior to being summoned as to what was up and what he was supposed to do. However, like all good railroad officers, he feigned surprise and a bit of worry when confronted with the challenge. Every good trainmaster learns to do that.

Once in the meeting, McCallum gave the group a bit of the old razzle-dazzle, the ever useful dog and pony show of writing down some numbers on a piece of paper. I don’t know if he used the proverbial “back of the envelope,” but I do know he didn’t use PowerPoint. After a suitable time spent scribbling, McCallum spoke: “The transfer can be begun and fully completed within seven days.”

Cue the sharp intakes of breath, the shaking of heads, and the broad smiles of the Secretary of War.

Lincoln wasn’t exactly overwhelmed, but when McCallum vowed, “I will pledge my life to accomplish it inside of seven days,” the President approved.

“Audacity, audacity, and ever more audacity,” recommended Danton (French Revolution) when it came to making a revolution, which this, like the war against slavery, was. I’ve bet my job on being able to do certain things, but my life?

Lincoln gave the orders. The plan was made. All that was required was the execution of the plan. That’s all.

For that, the Union had to rely on the privately held and managed railroads of the North, which did not yet share a standard gauge, much less yards and sidings for interchange. Those railroads, in turn, had to depend on their officers, whose authority in executing this plan had to be, shocking as this may sound, absolute.

I always recommend paying special attention to the experience of a Union general who sought to countermand a trainmaster’s orders not delay or hold any trains or equipment. The general had arrived late, and the trainmaster ordered that the general’s troops, already loaded on their train, be sent on without him.

Wanting to catch up with his division, the general announced that, since this was a military mission, he outranked the lowly trainmaster, and the refusal to comply with the general’s request to hold the trains carrying his troops for his arrival at a forward station would result in the trainmaster, and the station agent, being subject to court martial.

The trainmaster had anticipated such an occurrence and had already received the assurances that the Secretary of War would not tolerate military interference with the orders of railroad officers. So it was time to execute that part of the plan.

In short order, the unfortunate general received a telegram from the Secretary Stanton stating: “Major-General Hooker has the orders of this Department to relieve you from command and put under arrest any officer who undertakes to delay or interfere with the orders and regulations of the railroad officers in charge of the transportation of troops.”

The unfortunate general couldn’t believe the text of the telegram, and so he sent a request for further clarification. He received that clarification, which emphasized that any military officer interfering with the orders of railroad officers regarding the movement of trains would be relieved of his command.

The unfortunate general then inquired as to whether or not he still had a command. Stanton chose to ignore that query.

I could not have handled it any better myself. Always liked Stanton.

Such authority does not come easy, and it doesn’t come without a responsibility equal to, and even greater than, the exercise of authority. Authority can be delegated. Responsibility cannot. This too was a contribution of Daniel McCallum, who in developing the principles of effective railroad management at the Erie had written: “All that is required to render the efforts of railroad companies in every respect equal to that of individuals is a rigid system of personal accountability through every grade of service.”

The point is that good railroads are good from the ground up—from the ground, line and officers on up.

Now, I know it’s ever so fashionable to criticize railroads for being so “19th century,” for their “authoritarian” structure, their culture of “blame.” I’ve heard all of that and I think all of that is baloney.

The risks we introduce into our system for safe delivery of the required service when we assign responsibility, enforce compliance and impose discipline are acceptable, manageable risks. We might irritate an employee; we will definitely irritate an employee. We might receive complaints from union officials; we will definitely receive complaints from union officials. We might be criticized by those who have made a career of studying these things, but not a career of supervising safe train operations; we definitely will be criticized.

All those are manageable risks, because we have preserved the control of the movement of trains within the specifications and requirements of the authority for those movements.

The risks we introduce into our system of safe train operations when we hesitate to assign and accept responsibility, when we fail to enforce compliance, and when we refrain from imposing discipline are not manageable. Those risks are, in their very existence, antithetical to safe train operations, because the subordination of train movement to the authority for such movement has been violated.

Back some eight years ago, when I was getting ready to retire happily to a life of being a doting grandfather, I thought about hiring general managers and starting them as trainmasters, and I thought then, as I do now, that the best general managers always recall their inner trainmasters.

David Schanoes

David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2008. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in the operating division, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is ten percent planning plus ninety percent execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That's not so simple.”

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