Monday, August 10, 2015

Stop whimpering and find a way

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Stop whimpering and find a way

Last week, the FRA released its most recent report to Congress on the status of PTC implementation. As these things go, it’s not a bad report. It touches on all the big issues; says all the right things; and almost pleads with Congress to do something, but not just anything, the right something re: the approaching deadline.

We’ve all heard about the problems with the Congressional mandate. We’ve heard more times than necessary about the unfunded mandates; bandwidth availability; technical complexity; the sheer size of the general railway system to be equipped; the numbers of locomotives, switches and signals requiring modification; the numbers of employees to be trained; and of course the cost of acquiring spectrum; the cost of the technical complexities; the cost of modifying switches, locomotives, and signals; the cost of hiring, training, testing, certifying the employee—all of it.

Once upon a time, I was a trainmaster at a production yard—a hump yard. Nothing was more important than that hump, than humping cars. How important? I once stopped an arriving piggyback (back in the day) train on the main line, had the crew cut away their shiny new six-axle EMD locomotives and deliver them to the hump, because both hump sets (we called them “slugsets”) had failed and the motor pit had no available replacements. Sure, there was screaming from the Blue Room, from the movement office, and from the trainmaster at the piggyback yard, but push had come to shove, and when push comes to shove, the hump is more important. Ask any superintendent—which they all did.

To hump those cars, we had to couple and move blocks of cars out of the classification yard and into the departure yards. We had to inspect those cars. We had to find and assign motive power to those cars to make them trains. We had to have a road crew to run those trains. And we had to dispatch those trains in order to make more room to set out more cars, so we could hump more so we could receive more so we would have motive power, crews and cars to make another set of trains.

Piece of cake, right? This is always and forever the best of all possible worlds. What comes in must go out. Everything is in balance. The world is round. Harmony rules. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and then the lion will lie down with the lamb and enjoy the sunset, right?

Except it’s never the best of all possible worlds. What comes in doesn’t always go out in a timely manner. Everything’s out of sync, all the time, because disharmony is the natural result of movement. The lion eats the lamb and then dies of scrapie. And Coke? Gag. (Editor’s note: Scrapie is a fatal, degenerative disease that affects the nervous systems of sheep and goats. It is one of several transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), which are related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow disease”) and chronic wasting disease in deer.)

And if this really was the best of all possible worlds, who would need trainmasters anyway?

Timing is everything, but it’s conspicuous in its absence. Interruption is the stuff of real life, and interrupting the hump was the stuff of real death.

In the midst of all that imminent and immanent chaos, the general superintendent of transportation had a brainstorm about scheduling a piggyback train (this really was back in the day) originating in Meadows Yard to pick up the mixed freight classified for the train’s same destination by the hump. Save a crew, save locomotives, save EOTs. Brilliant idea.

Except it required a hump crew to stop humping, couple onto the cars, drag them out of the hump’s yard limits so the piggyback train crew could pick them up without claiming a penalty.

All in all, it cost us about 90 minutes on a hump crew each night.

“Bad move, Ripley,” as Burke said in Aliens, “It was a bad move.”

Turned out to be exactly that, a bad move. So bad that the general superintendent, concerned about the inability of the idiot trainmaster at this no-account piss-ant hump to execute this simple move, drove up from Philadelphia, showed up at the hump office and wanted to know what the problem was. Except ...

Except he didn’t want to know what the problem was. He wanted the problem to disappear. When I tried to explain the difficulties, he looked at me and said, simply, emphatically:

“That’s all BS, Schanoes. Quit whimpering and do your job. Pick up the cars and make up the train. Find a way.”

When the Railway Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) of 2008 became law, PTC became our job. It was, and is, just that simple. Find a way.

With that in mind, let me offer the following hypothetical remarks from a someone who, unlike me, is cynical, jaded, and suspicious by nature:

Unfunded mandate: Congress and the regulatory agencies impose unfunded mandates all the time. Drug and alcohol testing? Costs money, doesn’t it? Unfunded mandate, yes? Locomotive engineer certification? Costs money, doesn’t it? Unfunded mandate? Roadway worker protection training? Costs money, doesn’t it? Unfunded mandate? Locomotives on the NEC required to be equipped with cab signal/automatic train control, or train stop apparatus? Costs money, doesn’t it? Unfunded mandate? Mandatory minimum requirements for class of track, brake inspections, reporting of accidents, etc., etc., etc.? Cost money, don’t they? Unfunded mandates?

So quit whimpering, and find a way.

Note, not a single Class I railroad has identified lack of funds as the reason for (anticipated) non-compliance with the mandatory installation date.

Commuter railroads have, but ... pardon me if I don’t take that to heart. What’s the cost of PTC installation, say, to Metro-North and the LIRR? Less than $1 billion? That’s serious money, and a source of some concern or would be ... except we have yet to hear a complaint from the MTA about the cost and the delay to its in-house, (in)famous, non-mandated East Side Access project, originally planned to be in service in 2008, bringing thousands of LIRR commuters directly into Grand Central Terminal at a cost of $4.8 billion, and now “rescheduled” for “service” in 2023 with the cost exceeding $10 billion. Not a peep. Not a demand from anyone for heads rolling or unrolling.

So quit whimpering, and find a way.

What way? Anybody here ever pay a phone bill, or take a taxi ride in NYC? Ever notice the surcharges? The MTA surcharge? The 911 surcharge? Anybody ever buy a plane ticket and check out those surcharges?

Let’s just imagine that commuter railroad X sells on average the equivalent of 500,000 round trips per 7-day week. Too many? OK, let’s make it 250,000 each week. Now we add a $1 surcharge to each round-trip—and call it the unfunded mandate PTC funding surcharge. After a year we have $13 million in accumulated surcharge revenues. After 20 or 25 years, we’ve completely recouped the original investment in PTC, and we eliminate the surcharge—something that’s never going to happen with 911 or the MTA surcharge.

So ... quit whimpering, and find a way.

Spectrum availability: This is interesting. All the Class I’s have obtained the necessary spectrum. Almost half the commuter/passenger railroads reporting have obtained the necessary spectrum. Why, for example, LIRR has acquired the necessary spectrum, but Metro-North and NJT have not, is not explained in the report, and I wonder if there is any explanation other than each railroad’s prioritization of this matter. Editor’s note: Railway Age’s understanding is that the spectrum LIRR and Metro-North were able to obtain in certain areas is not available on other sections of Metro-North. And prior to the recent attention focused on Amtrak’s Frankford Junction (Philadelphia) wreck, the FCC was not so willing to assist with PTC. That has changed, and any lingering Northeast Corridor spectrum problems are being addressed.

But even more interesting is this: SCRRA (Metrolink commuter rail service in Southern California) has completed its PTC installation, and has started its revenue service demonstration. At a recent Congressional hearing, SCRRA stated that it had obtained the necessary 220 MHz spectrum from a private supplier, PTC220 LLC, the company established by the Class I’s to manage the 220 MHz spectrum initially purchased by Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern prior to the passage of the RSIA in 2008, and then picked up by the other carriers after the legislation was enacted.

My point is that purchase and use of the 220 MHz spectrum was a business decision, made by the major freight carriers for commercial, not safety, reasons. So all that stuff about how Congress or the FCC neglected to provide a “public safety spectrum” for a public safety project is hogwash. The Class I’s selected 220 MHz because (1) they own it and (2) they bought it for wireless data transmission for improving traffic management, not train control. That the Class I’s see 220 MHz as a commercial opportunity is in keeping with the grandest traditions of U.S. business. It’s disingenuous to claim that Congress should provide bandwidth free of charge to the railroads for PTC, when the decision to use wireless data networks and 220 MHz was made by the railroads as part of a commercial decision, not a public safety decision. PTC is defined by functionality, not by technique. (Some might claim that the 160 MHz and 900 Mhz spectrums cannot satisfy the needs of I-ETMS, but again, the selection of I-ETMS was a decision left to, and made, by the railroads.)

In any case, please stop the whimpering. Find a way.

Those are just a few of the comments someone cynical and jaded and suspicious by nature might make. That someone is not me. I am a happy, smiling, optimistic grandfather with two beautiful granddaughters, ages 9 and 4, and a handsome 2 month old grandson. I know everything will be all right.

And that general superintendent with the brilliant move? He was wrong. It wasn’t BS. But he was right. It was my job to find a way. And I did.

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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