Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Culture wars, Part 2

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Culture wars, Part 2

Hello, J.D. Congratulations on your retirement. I’ve missed working with you, and the GAS man, and AFF, and all, I mean all the others, all these years.

I know you read the first post, and you saw the draft sections of this second part where I was going to parse, more or less, the NTSB board member comments and discussions and point out the errors and misconceptions expressed therein. But you know what J.D.? That’s all pretty much besides the point, the point being that two people are dead, and they shouldn’t be.

The point J.D. is what we already know to be true: that it takes the constant vigilance of line officers to reduce the risk of a catastrophic accident on the railroad. Not that railroads aren’t safe. They are. Not that the vital principles of train operations aren’t the principles of safe train operations. They are. Not that technological improvements, sensible regulation and improved culture aren’t critical constituents of a safe railroad. They are. But those are the “passive” elements. They are “plan” so to speak. Line officers are the active agents of railroad safety, the “execution” so to speak. It really is 10% planning, 90% execution.

Everybody asks, “Are railroads ‘safe enough’?” We never asked that question of each other or the railroad. We asked each other instead, and everyday, if not every hour, “what does this mean for the operation,” because the “operation,” the performance of the system, was never distinct, separate or apart from the safety of the system.

We never entertained the nonsense about “zero tolerance” or “no compromise” between safety and performance. We knew every time we put a train in motion we were trying to find that sweet spot, that compromise between safety and performance. We—all of us—did that, what? 1,000, 2,000 times a day? Of course we tried to compromise safety and performance. We wanted our trains to run at MAS; we required our crews to operate our trains according to schedule; we insisted that trains could be on time without degrading safety, without anybody getting hurt. But we knew that there was risk involved in running 700-800 trains daily between Grand Central Terminal and other locations.

We had to manage that risk.

On the occasion of your retirement, I want to tell you a story. One night, I returned home from work about 8:30 PM (excuse me, 20:30 hours), and I was having dinner with my wife. I was digging in to the salad, had a cherry tomato on my fork, when the phone rang. My hands shook, the fork dropped out of my hand, and I turned pale. I answered the phone. It was the president of the railroad. He was in the operations office at 25 Track, and he wanted to know why I “took the quit” and had left early. He was kidding of course. Yanking my chain. Jerking the leash.

I didn’t begrudge him the chance to yank my chain. I’d yanked his a few times. It’s the railroad way. And least of all could I begrudge him, the best railroad executive I’ve ever worked with, and would work with again in a heartbeat? But it made a couple of things very clear to me: first, how lucky I had been that in picking up the phone, even when it involved a report of a signal violation or a derailment, that the call never involved a fatal accident due to an operating rule violation.

It also made it clear to me how much I was looking forward to retirement.

Did I say lucky? Yeah, lucky. Remember “Better to be lucky than good”? I think Lefty Gomez first said that. I liked to attribute it to Joe DiMaggio, when Marilyn Monroe agreed to marry him.

In any case don’t ever count on luck. But, if you make it through your career without once having to visit somebody’s family, yeah, there’s a bit of luck involved. I worked as hard as I did because I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I thought I hadn’t made every effort to make the railroad a safe railroad. I worked as hard as I did knowing that it took more than my efforts, my intentions, to make that a reality. I had to count on others.

I counted on you. We argued. We agreed. We disagreed. You even “out-crazied” me—once (but only once), but you always delivered.

So ... getting back to Chester, Pa., we can in fact put GPS receivers on track equipment. As a matter of fact, I bet lots of m/w equipment is already equipped with GPS receivers so the movements can be tracked for budgetary purposes. But even with that, it’s a timing thing. Does the dispatcher see the occupancy indication in time?

We can even integrate the occupancy indication with the train control system, so that the obstruction of the track triggers a downgrade of signal or authorized speed indication, but again, that’s a timing thing: the train is around the curve at 110 mph, a hi-rail vehicle gets on the track 300 feet on the other side of the curve, it takes one second for the obstruction to be processed and transmitted to the train, two seconds for the train brakes to set up, (even without any “free run” time), and guess what? Location/occupancy technology to the contrary not withstanding, the phone’s ringing and it’s not someone yanking your chain.

But we, the line officers, are about incrementally reducing risk, not eliminating risk altogether. We know we are engaged in a calculus, a series of successive approximations based on each previous approximation to reduce the likelihood, the probability, but not the possibility, of such incidents, so we will welcome such technological advances. And we know it’s no substitute for effective supervision. Now that’s the real safety culture essential to railroading.

Congratulations, J.D. I miss you. Good railroading misses you. And I’m not yanking your chain.

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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