Wednesday, October 29, 2014

“Schumenthal” at their self-serving best and worst

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“Schumenthal” at their self-serving best and worst

I never thought I would find myself in the position of defending the Federal Railroad Administration, at least from anyone other than the Ayn Rand-Alan Greenspan-Phil Gramm-Rush Limbaugh types out there, but life is a funny thing.

Except nobody’s laughing. And nobody should be laughing.

I made it a point, having completed another wonderful session with my shrink and equipped with all the medication a healthy person would need, to attend the National Transportation Safety Board press conference, held at Grand Central Terminal (not "Station"), on the Board’s findings regarding the five accidents on Metro-North between May 2013 and April 2014.

BN-FG177 nymnnr P 20141028131058The NTSB being a creature of Congress, it would have required extraordinary courage and integrity for the Board to deny three Senators (two from Connecticut, and one from New York) the opportunity to use its press conference as a platform to make unwarranted and slanderous characterizations, exercise payback, grandstand, and otherwise obscure, dissemble, and deflect from the real issues at stake.

Courage, apparently, is not a requirement for establishing and strengthening a safety culture.

Now, those who know me know I’m inclined to use harsh language. The thing about using harsh language on a railroad is that it is, it has to be, justified by the events. So referring to a locomotive engineer as “that jerk” for stopping his or her train with cars not on the platform is, in fact, warranted. Referring to the conductor who, despite the absence of the platform, opens the train doors as “that f**king jerk” is more than warranted. It’s damn near mandatory. Otherwise you’re failing to perceive the risks properly.

However, I have never used the language deployed by those senators at this press conference. Senators Schumer and Blumenthal, who I generally characterize as one “Schumenthal,” were at their self-serving best and worst.

Schumer characterized the NTSB reports as exposing “a horror house of negligence resulting in injuries mayhem and death.” Really? A horror house of negligence? Of deliberately neglecting maintenance, knowing full well the likely consequences?

When I used such harsh language, characterizing an employee as a threat to the safety of others, I followed it up with action—immediate action. I couldn’t criminally prosecute the employee, but I could and I did remove him/her from service.

So? So if Schumenthal believes that the railroad officers responsible for safe train operations were in fact running a house of horrors, then he should use his power to pursue criminal indictments against those officers, past and present.

Of course, none of the senators thinks Metro-North or MTA is solely responsible for this mayhem, injury, and death. All three think FRA is equally if not more culpable than the MTA/Metro-North management. One senator referred to FRA “being out to lunch.”

I believe it was Schumer (but it might have been Blumenthal) who referred to FRA having “blood on its hands,” which is pretty incredible, but not as incredible as the words of (definitely) Blumenthal, who characterized FRA as a “rogue agency” that engages in “breaking the law.” What? Or in railroad talk, “WTF?” (Abbreviation approved for use in mandatory directives and train orders.)

I wonder how Joe Szabo feels about being characterized as the Taliban of the federal government? Or this year’s Ollie North?

If I were administering the FRA, which reports to the Secretary of Transportation, who reports to the President and the Congress, I’d be seriously pissed, so pissed I might forget myself and slip back into harsh language.

Our heroic Senators, and courageous NTSBers, waxed repeatedly about the delay FRA took in endorsing and acting on NTSB’s decades long advocacy of Positive Train Control.

Well, let’s step back a moment and look at the past 30 years in government. What has been the theme of those 30 years? Less regulation. Regulation strangles business. Under Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

Regulatory agencies have been under a mandate to perform a cost-benefit analysis on proposed new regulations, and where the cost cannot be justified by the benefit, in dollar terms, the agencies have been constrained from acting. You can look it up. So . . .

So NTSB recommends to FRA (among others), but it reports to Congress, and Congress is under no such constraint in enacting legislation.

Congress could have enacted mandatory PTC by statute all those years FRA was supposedly dragging its feet; was supposedly “going rogue;” was supposedly “breaking the law.” But Congress did not act. It took a collision at Chatsworth, Calif. in an election year for Congress to act.

So why the delays, Senators?

I’m not 100% positive, and I won’t be until I can access the complete video of the press conference, but I think the words like “negligent,” “careless,” “failure,” and “too deferring to the industry it regulates” were just some of the characterizations made by the three Senators while occupying the NTSB platform. So. . . .

Metro-North-RailroadSo afterwards, I had a moment alone with Sen. Schumer and I asked him, “Are you calling for the removal and replacement of the FRA Administrator?”

“Not yet,” he replied.

Not yet? Why not yet? If FRA is culpable, how much more mayhem, injury, and death do you need? Schumer pointed out that he was “less harsh in characterizing FRA” than his colleague. Don’t know how that makes you feel, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.

So look at the data. I know that lately, data-driven analysis has been characterized as overrated by some, but data driven analysis is what we must use to refute the dishonest characterization of FRA as a “rogue” “law-breaking” agency.

Look at the numbers, boys and girls. And look at the trend of the numbers. Look at the sustained declines in the rates of employee injuries, of employee fatalities, of major accidents/incidents over the past 30 years. Does that record, does that trend, look like the record and the trend that would or could be achieved by a “rogue” agency, intent on breaking the law? An agency that was “too deferential to the industry it regulated”?

Does anyone in this industry, besides the Ayn Rand-Alan Greenspan types, think this trend would have occurred if FRA had not instituted, and enforced, mandatory and random drug and alcohol testing? If FRA had not instituted locomotive engineer and conductor certification? If FRA had not instituted roadway worker protection? Crashworthiness standards? Automatic train control/stop on the NEC? Protocols for shoving movements? Job safety briefings? Well, I’ve worked in this industry for 42 years, in positions from brakeman to conductor to chief dispatcher to trainmaster to deputy chief of field operations, and I know the answer is “No way.” Or in railroadese, “No f**king way.”

So I think Schumenthal should either demand the replacement of FRA’s administrator, or they should keep quiet.

 So I think the NTSB has to learn to keep its press conferences, its platforms, from being commandeered by politicians, for politicians.

And that might take more courage than is apparently on hand.

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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