I Wanna Testify Part 3

Posted in Uncategorized at 01:12 by Administrator

How did we get here,  to that point where those strongest advocates of safety culture and risk assessment do not recognize the need to evaluate the  risk to safety their own recommendations pose?  Is it yet another example where we depreciate our systems?

To figure that out, we have to go back a bit in the history of the railroad to determine the real “core values” of railroading.

So let’s begin.  Railroads are businesses.  Initially they are organized to make money through the more rapid movement and delivery of goods and people to destination.  To do that, to make that money, to deliver those people and goods, railroads are compelled, and not always or even most of the time by their own volition, to adopt and adapt measures that promote the safe movement of trains.

Today we call that a “core value.”  Back in the day, we called it the vitality of the railroad.  The vital process of the railroad was the authorization for the safe movement of trains.  The vital process of the railroad could not be fulfilled simply through granting authority.  The conditions for that authorization had to be created and more than created, they had to be reproduced in every component, each facet– infrastructure, train control, vehicle maintenance, and human performance.  Creating that code for reproduction of the vital authority was and is embodied in the operating rules and timetables.  So important was/is the integrity of that code, alterations and adaptations of that code for specific circumstances not established by the timetable or its special instructions require(d) written authority  issued over the signature or initials of the railroad superintendent.

As railroads developed, their importance to the movement of goods and people grew to the point that they could not, and did not, function solely as private enterprises, but also as public utilities.  This dual nature, this “socialization” of the railroad, is the product of its very success as a safe means of transportation.

None of this was accomplished easily, and not much of this was accomplished by the “invisible hand” of the market place.  The “invisible hand” doesn’t really exist,  the three “A”s– Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, and Adam Smith– to the contrary notwithstanding.  Public pressure, government intervention and/or the threat of government intervention, demands from labor have been essential to the evolution of the vital process.

No less essential to this evolution has been enforcement of the elements of this code.  The rules and procedures for safe train operations are useless if they are not applied.  They cannot be applied without being enforced.  Violations of the vital process of the railroad are just that– threats to the safe train operations and must be treated as such.

Let’s dispel some, if not all, the distortions and myths that characterize enforcement, and the ways railroads ensure compliance.  First and foremost, and contrary to the impression one could obtain at these hearings, railroads do not unilaterally, arbitrarily, capriciously utilize enforcement to “punish” employees.  Doesn’t mean railroads or its officers are perfect.  Doesn’t mean that officers aren’t susceptible to prejudice, vindictiveness, or simply errors of judgment.  It does mean that the processes of enforcement are not expressions of such frailties.

It does mean that railroads don’t solely rely on discipline.  It does mean enforcement is not exclusively the application of discipline and punishments.  It does mean that the railroads do extend extraordinary efforts to train, educate, explain, qualify, re-qualify, counsel and assist employees.  It does mean all those things make up enforcement.

Railroads do not immediately turn to punishment in cases of rule violations.  Again efforts are made to train, educate, explain, qualify, demonstrate requirements to employees prior  to initiation of disciplinary proceedings, depending on the severity of the violation, and the assessment of risk to the vitality of the railroad that the violation presents.

If and when violations occur that jeopardize safe train movements, railroads must immediately act to remove that person or persons from a position where he or she can be a threat to the safety of other employees or the public.  To fail to do so, to fail to enforce this, is a failure discharge a responsibility as a public utility.

Employees facing disciplinary proceedings are not “helpless individuals” facing a corporate giant.  Employees are represented, and represented quite effectively by their labor organizations which are very successful in reducing and/or eliminating the assessment of punishments.  The record of the ACRE organization on Metro-North is the best example of that I had, or have, ever encountered in my 30 years as a railroad officer.

None of the incidents that occurred on Metr0-North railroad has its cause in the arbitrary use of discipline, the improper application of discipline, the “lack of communication” between tops, bottoms, or sides of the railroad, “intimidation,” “lack of trust,”  “asymmetrical applications of authority,” or any other characterization of relations between management and labor.

So let’s look a bit more closely at what is proposed as a new paradigm to move railroads away from this mythic model of “crime and punishment.”  And let’s see how these alternatives actually apply or don’t apply when violations of the vital process, the conditions for safe train operations, occur.

One such innovation is “close call confidential reporting.”  FRA describes close call reporting as, “a voluntary, confidential demonstration program for railroad carriers and their employees to report close calls without receiving disciplinary action.”

That’s cool.  Get comfortable, because I’m going to tell you a story.  Years ago, Metro-North equipped its Hudson and Harlem lines, and the equipment operating on those lines, for cab signal/automatic speed control operation.   Every controlling cab was equipped with an audible indicator denoting a change in the cab signal which required a reduction in speed.  The audible indicator was affixed in such a way, however, that it could be unfastened from its position within the cab and literally shoved behind a metal panel, thus deadening the sound.  And sure enough, sooner rather than later, engineers began reporting over the radio the absence of the audible indicator in its proper location and the inability to hear the alarm when conducting the cab signal pre-departure test.

Certain enterprising locomotive engineer(s) were unscrewing the securing ring and shoving the indicator behind the plate.  The fact that such an action was tampering with a safety device and could damage the apparatus, thus placing co-workers and public at risk was of little consequence to the perpetrator(s), and I use the term perpetrator(s) with deliberate intent.   A little bit of leg work and I had figured out pretty much who the perpetrator(s) was/were.

Now, let’s substitute the “close call confidential reporting system” for the leg work. I get a call from a conductor, who in confidentiality tells me that the engineer he/she works with has been disconnecting the audible indicator on the cab signal system.  Now what? What does a line officer do?  Got out there and “re-educate” the engineer about his/her duty to not tamper with a safety device?  And in so doing make it obvious that the conductor is the one who has provided the information?  Exactly what benefit is such a system?

It is argued that such a system will provide new streams of information enabling officers to better understand the causes of trends in operating violations.  Specific reference was made in the hearing to the increase in stop signal violations in Metro-North’s Grand Central Terminal.

I know a little bit about Grand Central Terminal and a little bit more about trends in stop signal violations.  We experienced three such “abnormal” increases in the rates of stop signal violations in the terminal during my tenure.  The first was among conductors assigned to yard and switching service in the terminal and occurred when the conductors were making reverse movements through the interlocking.  We conducted interviews with each of the individuals involved and quickly determined that these employees were not properly trained and should not have been qualified as yard conductors in the terminal.  The operating officers in GCT then developed their own qualification tests, both written, and “ridden” for employees seeking to qualify as yard conductors.  The trend quickly reversed itself and fell back within its historical average.

In response to a second uptick in violations, we conducted extensive sight distance testing on the placement of signals in the terminal and moved certain signals to provide a greater preview, in some cases elevating the signals.

A third unusual increase in the rate of stop signal violations in the terminal provoked another series of investigations, and  we found the training process for engineers in Grand Central was not adequate for the demands of service in that terminal.  This time we called upon the office of the General Road Foreman of Engines (staffed by two of the most talented individuals I have ever encountered in this industry) to change the training and qualification process.

What we never did, and never would do is waive the discipline for an actual stop signal violation.  The speed requirement in GCT is restricted speed, prepared to stop short within half the range of vision etc. etc. etc. and nothing relieves the engineer of his/her responsibility to comply with that requirement.

It is somewhat astounding to me that when supposed experts talk about the rail industry, they talk about the  supposed backward state of its “communication channels,” its supposed “disconnects,”  its “adversarial relations” with labor, its “failure” to embrace  “just society” parameters, all those things that are so debilitating to “safety culture”  “core values”  “partnering”  “teamwork” and safe train operations.  You would never guess that rail is the second safest mode of public transportation in the US,  trailing only travel by air, which is, and better remain the safest mode.

In the two days of hearings, I never once heard any board member, any “expert,” any “investigator” and not even a witness state that fact. If in fact the rail safety record is being hampered by these vital flaws, then I recommend that the other modes of transportation adapt these flawed elements for their own benefit.

I heard no mention by a board member or investigator or an expert on the panels of inquiry of the tremendous, measurable improvements in rail safety made since 1986.  It’s as if 25 years of progress, development, lives saved hasn’t occurred.  Well, it has occurred. And its driving elements have NOT been close-call reporting, or waiving discipline.  Let’s speak clearly here.  The improvements have been brought about in large part  by mandatory regulations:  by random and mandatory alcohol and drug testing, and by enforcing the penalties for violations; by locomotive engineer certification and penalties for failure of railroads to properly train, certify, audit, recertify the locomotive engineers; by roadway worker protection and the requirement to properly train employees and enforce the requirements of the regulation; by the installation of cab signal/speed control systems for passenger service in the Northeast Corridor region.  They all cost money, they all take time, they all require training, education, application, enforcement, effective supervision.

I’m for effective regulation, just like I’m for effective supervision.

Yes, to err is human.  To forgive is divine.  Enforcement is more important than either.  We’re not in the divinity business.  We’re in the vital process of safe train operations.

Done testifying.


November 10, 2013








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