A Little Schadenfreude Goes a Long Way

Written by David Schanoes, Contributing Editor
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You’re feeling bad? All alone? Misunderstood? Picked on? Unfairly accused of being completely selfish, self-aggrandizing and self-serving? Losing faith in your lobbyists? In your lobbied legislators? In the omnipotence of the market? In the efficiency of deregulation? In faith itself? Do the challenges ahead seem … more than challenging? Irresolvable? Consistently resistant, persistent and intractable? Feeling overworked and underappreciated? Under-compensated, restless and exhausted? Afraid you’re losing it, the ability to see the one or two steps ahead? The ability to fit ten pounds of whatever into the five-pound bag?

Well, it, the source of these anxieties, might be you, and if it is, they have pills for that, pills that won’t disqualify you from safety-sensitive positions. But then, it might just be this business of moving freight and passengers day-in, day-out without hurting anyone or anything, when the business is running up the inside of the cage of its own making.

In both cases, you’re not alone. On the one hand, I confess I’ve had all those feelings (but never all those feelings all at once), a risk of the impoverished ego that demands perfection or near enough to perfection that it fools even you (for a day or two).

On the other hand, it appears that those challenges and problems and cluster-headaches are international, occurring and besetting our colleagues in the old countries of the new European Union.

So forget about taking the exam to become a real estate broker or a certified financial analyst. Forget about those sad feelings. No, a smile is not going to be an effective umbrella, but a little schadenfreude might help.

Open up the May 2023 issue of International Railway Journal. Editor-in-Chief Kevin Smith wastes no time and uses no euphemisms. Quoting the European Court of Auditors on the prospects for European railroads to handle double the freight volumes by 2050 as part of the program for “green” freight transport, the article begins: “Simply unrealistic.”

Indeed, rail’s portion of European freight transport has fallen from 18.3% of the total in 2011 to 16.8% in 2022. Some of the problems are insufficient network capacity, infrastructure shortfalls, inadequate data on rail availability and reliability, poor cross-border coordination, restrictive language requirements—and those are just the problems with intermodal service.

A few pages later, Robert Preston’s article “Ambitious Approach Needed to Meet EU Rail Freight Modal Share Targets” provides more details. This time the quote belongs to the Secretary General of the European Rail Freight Association (EFRA): “Rail freight growth has stagnated over the past decade. We’re not on track here. Under the current system it will be difficult to reach these targets.”

And what is that current system? It’s a system of national railroads, or national railroad infrastructure owners over which the intrepid freight providers must, by necessity, operate internationally. Clearly a solution requires if not complete centralization of decision-making authority (and no system can function with complete centralization), complete coordination concerning available track slots so proper schedules can be established from origin in one country to destination in another.

Slots, after all, are the railroad’s most valuable asset.

Borders can be crossed, networks can be established, train coordination can be accomplished, and the assumption behind all these tasks is that the parties speak the same language. Easy, or hard, enough in the U.S., where we’re dealing with different terms between Eastern and Western railroads for the same procedures: “Track and Time”? Never heard of it, until I met a colleague from BNSF who had been involved in the birth of GCOR (General Code of Operating Rules). Once he described it, I knew that he was describing exclusive track occupancy.

Now imagine the same discussion between a Dutch-speaking locomotive engineer and a Spanish-speaking train dispatcher, flag person or maintenance-of-way roadway worker who, by the way, works for a company separate from the locomotive engineer’s freight company. The EU hopes that the cross-border adoption and adaptation of ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) with its ETCS (European Train Control System) module intended to replace the various national legacy ATP (automatic train protection) systems will, using on-screen displays, reduce the need for verbal communication—but wishing and hoping should be prohibited from consideration in train control systems.

Plus, turn back a few pages and you’ll find this headline article “Dutch ERTMS Rollout Delayed as Costs Rise.” Behind schedule and more costly? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? One billion euros more expensive? Possible delay of the system rollout until 2050? Sure sounds familiar to me.

The Netherlands’ Secretary of State for Infrastructure cautioned that the complexity of the work to upgrade infrastructure, to equip rolling stock with the on-board system, to train the locomotive operators and dispatchers (and roadway workers I would add) to use the new train control system might cause additional delay to scheduled implementation.

That sounds positively American.

To sum up: No matter how harried you feel, how miserable your circumstances, remember there’s no place like home on the railroad, and no matter where the railroad is, you’ll always be at home.

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 in 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in operations, 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 10% planning plus 90% 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.”