Monday, May 18, 2015

If only . . . but wait . . .

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If only . . . but wait . . .

I’ve been in France. I love being in France, a country that in the past 20 years has spent twice on its railways what it has spent on its roads. What am I missing? Another fatal overspeed derailment? At Frankford Junction?

More senators? More NTSB? More press? More “If only PTC would have been installed”? More “But wait, we have this spectrum problem”? More John Ehrlichmanning/Mitchelling? “I have no recollection of the events leading up to . . . ” my participation in the plans to break into the headquarters of the Democratic Party? The events prior to and during the derailment at 102 mph on a curve restricted to 50 mph?

Memory loss. I talk to my friends in this business, and we all talk about loss of institutional knowledge, institutional memory. Nobody knows how to do anything anymore. Right? You’ve thought it. Maybe you’ve said it.

Nobody knows anything. Nobody wants to know. Everybody wants to forget. “We’re only in it for the money,” said Frank Zappa. He was serious, but he meant it as a criticism, not as an operating plan.

Amnesia is the modern currency. I don’t recall, I can’t remember, nobody told me, it’s so long ago I forgot, I was distracted: Cue Shaggy to give us the short version, “It wasn’t me.”

Cue the union, “We warned Amtrak that schedule changes imposed on our members exacerbated the risk of fatigue.” Cue the unconfirmed report from an assistant conductor that Amtrak 188’s locomotive may have been hit by a “projectile.” The story, so it’s told, goes like this:

The assistant conductor, who was working in the cafe car, heard engineer Brandon Bostian talking to an engineer on the SEPTA regional rail line who said his train had been “hit by a rock or shot at,” according to the NTSB’s Robert Sumwalt. She said she thought she heard Bostian reply that his train had also been struck.

“Right after she recalled hearing this conversation between her engineer and the SEPTA engineer, she said she felt a rumbling, and her train leaned over and her car went over on its side,” Sumwalt said.

Priceless, brothers and sisters. See, the assistant conductor recalls the radio report, but apparently she doesn’t recall the locomotive engineer accelerating the train to 1.5 times the maximum authorized speed for the track approaching the curve, and the twice the speed authorized for the curve itself. And apparently, if she did take notice, she didn’t take immediate action to notify the engineer or the conductor.

See? This is what I mean by loss of institutional memory, or knowledge. She heard the radio, but apparently had no idea how fast the train was, or should be, moving. Maybe I’m wrong. Please, anyone, prove me wrong.

Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s ask the passengers who ride that train everyday if they noticed excessive speed. Guess what? They did. Holy Rule Book, we need to hire our passengers for train crew personnel since apparently they are the only ones paying attention to the operation of the train.

So . . . did the engineer on Amtrak 188 notify the train dispatcher of the stoning? He has no recollection, according to NTSB investigators. Amnesia.

Let’s go to the radio tapes and find out. Indeed. But don’t hold your breath. Really. Anybody ever hear from the NTSB about the cell phone records of the SUV driver at the Commerce Street accident on Metro-North? I know I haven’t. And I’ve asked. Weekly.

And if the report is accurate, exactly what does that have to do with the throttle position of the locomotive? The locomotive engineer was “startled” and inadvertently went to the 8th notch, or forgot to move the throttle out of the 8th notch, because something hit the windshield? He doesn’t know. Nobody knows. He doesn’t recall. Nobody recalls. Amnesia. It’s a Watergate world, and I’m sleepwalking.

I remember having projectiles thrown at my locomotive when operating in certain areas of Chicago. I remember Amtrak’s E60 locomotives (Remember those brutes? Great for hauling coal at 40 mph. Passenger trains at 90? Not so much) with what we called “grenade screens” affixed to the windshields, precisely for operating through certain tough areas.

So what? I never saw a locomotive engineer lose track of where he or she was when we got hit. Amnesia was not quite as popular then.

Call me cynical, call me jaded, call me the big-mouthed, abrasive, arrogant, rude, crude, vulgar, impolite, impolitic, gauche, overly aggressive s___thead everyone knows me to be (including family members), but I’m not buying into it.

I remember how to tell where I am on the railroad from inside the train. I use my railroad-approved watch that tells me what time it is, where we should be at this time, and then I know what the timetable says my MAS should be, and what my MAS should be at the next restriction . . . and Holy Rat’s Ass, Casey Jones, you’re overspeeding.

But I’ll tell you . . . I’m sick of this whole charade.

I’m sick of the statements “reaffirming the industry’s embrace of PTC” after the years of moaning about the unfunded mandate, after the years of not, in the interim, using existing technology, to automatically enforce a stop signal, or a permanent speed restriction. I’m sick of the warnings about fatigue, accompanied of course by the refusal or inability or reluctance to establish medical fitness standards and test for sleep apnea. I’m sick of the “letters of concern” and “emergency orders” that are a) issued for the benefit of the press and/or b) are directed toward a single property, and don’t even address the problems on that property in a systematic, thorough fashion.

I am heartsick of the top ten “if onlys . . . but waits” like:

10. If only . . . Amtrak had close call confidential reporting..

9. But wait . . . Amtrak does have C3RS in place.

8. If only Amtrak had PTC.

7. But wait, this accident could have been prevented without PTC.

6. If only Amtrak had a second person in the operating cab of the locomotive.

5. But wait, there was a second person in the cab in 1987 when Conrail engineer Ricky Lee Gates ran a stop signal at Gunpow Interlocking in Maryland and killed 16 people on Amtrak’s Colonial.

4. If only Amtrak had an alerter in the cab.

3. But wait, Amtrak 188 did have an alerter in the cab.

2. If only anybody, but anybody, remembered anything about the first principles of safe railroading, about responsibility, about knowing your timetable, about the conductor being in charge of the train.

1. But wait: Monsieur, une autre bouteille de Bandol s’il vous plaît. Je dois oublier certaines choses. (Dear Sir, another bottle of Bandol please. I must forget certain things.)

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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