Skimming the Surface
The Sound and The Fury
The Big Belly Flop
1. First the good news: FRA released its final report to Congress, Operation Deep Dive : Metro-North Commuter Railroad Safety Assessment, right on time, right on the button, right on the thirty days after the sixty day "deep dive" itself.
The bad news is just that-- that the punctuality of the report is the only good news. The report itself, minus cover pages, self-serving recaps, and unnecessary appendices is a scant sixteen pages. Sixty days of work, and we get sixteen pages of .. of impressions. Now maybe these are expert impressions, produced by teams of experts. Maybe these are expert impressions for those too busy, with too little time or ability to focus on the data that, when properly assessed, would yield conclusions. However, no such data is produced.
Now, I guess, data is getting a bad name. I guess data is overrated especially for those last century railroaders like myself. The administrator of the FRA, Joseph Szabo, interviewed after the release of this so-called in depth analysis said, "Historically our enforcement and regulatory program has been data-driven. We actually used statistical models and computer assets to do inspection plans and staffing allocation plans. That approach has dramatically reduced accidents and fatalities to decades low-level. But clearly Metro-North is an indication that that approach alone is not sufficient."
Let's stop right there for a second. We are being told by a government body that establishes minimal standards for performance, training, qualification, and maintenance of all railroads, that its data collection methods are not sufficient to the task of establishing such standards.
Keep that in mind.
Mr. Szabo is then asked by the interviewer:
Q: Your report found that Metro-North delayed track inspections and inspection of operational systems in the name of on-time performance. Did delays in track inspections contribute to the Bridgeport derailment?
A: Those investigations are continuing, so I cannot tell you... that there was a definite connection. But I can tell you that what we found adds to greater risk of things like that occurring.
Wait a second, the interviewer asked a pretty straight forward "Yes or No" question, and didn't get an answer. Mr. Szabo says he cannot answer that because the investigations are continuing.
The derailment in Bridgeport is now 10 months old. If that question cannot be answered, than how can any conclusion be drawn about the quality of the railroad's inspection procedures? What can be said about the "depth" of FRA's own deep dive?
This is the problem with non data-driven "investigations." You don't get any answers. You don't even get approximations of answers to specific issues. You get "overall impressions" which may or may not contain some validity, but again, there's no way of really knowing.
I think this is a real problem, that when a regulatory body is not data-driven, it cannot provide answers, standards, limits, requirements.
After ten months of investigations, and after sixty days of so-called in-depth analysis of Metro-North's procedures, an answer cannot be provided. Nevertheless, despite FRA's own inability to answer the question, it feels compelled and justified to order that Metro-North by May 17, sixty days more or less, "submit a plan that addresses all the actions outlined in the report."
If we cannot be certain than the impressions and concerns FRA expresses are adequate and correct representations of conditions that cause failures, how can a plan address those failures? Certainly Metro-North can satisfy FRA by submitting a report that says, in essence, "we will do exactly what you tell us to do," but let's be clear, anybody who has ever worked a day in this industry knows that's no way to run a railroad.
We are seeking safe train operations; and safe train operations most definitely are the product of data; of knowledge; of process; of expertise..
2. Disclosure: I worked at Metro-North for 23 years, retiring in 2008 from my position as Deputy-Chief of Field Operations I retired because I wanted to, not because I had to. I wanted to because, quite simply, I was tired of worrying.
During my tenure on-time performance was as important as a metric as it has been in the five years since
FRA's detailed report provides exactly zero details to support its conclusions; and the main conclusion is a whopper. FRA states:
The findings of Operation Deep Dive demonstrate that Metro-North has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure.
Incredible, no? I would expect, having dealt with FRA for years that after an assertion like that there would follow item after item demonstrating-- the very word the report uses--how Metro-North has compromised safety in its pursuit of on-time performance; how Metro-North has failed to meet the standards, the mark, the measure, the data upon which we can judge if maintenance procedures are adequate or not. There is no enumeration of such items. There is no evidence provided of inadequate maintenance of infrastructure. FRA can't even tell us, ten months after the fact, if the derailment in Bridgeport was the result of track conditions that fell below FRA's own standards for adequate maintenance.
The accusation that FRA makes, that senior-management at Metro-North consciously and deliberately acted in a manner that increased risk, reduced safety, and interfered with the adequate maintenance of the railroad is, in this business, an indictment. And I don't mean indictment as a metaphor.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, after reading FRA's report, has called for the firing of Metro-North's management. He's far too kind if he thinks that is a sufficient response, if FRA's assertions can be substantiated. .
These accusations are of such severity, and if true, of such magnitude, resulting in injury and death to passengers so as to warrant a criminal investigation. If FRA has evidence to support these assertions, then such evidence should be utilized to assign the liability for this disregard of the public's safety to the proper parties. This is no joke. After the collision at Chase, Md. Ricky Lee Gates was prosecuted, convicted, and jailed for his criminal acts that resulted in deaths and injury. He spent four years in prison.
Metro-North management should not be treated differently than a locomotive engineer, if FRA can provide evidence, data, information to substantiate its assertions.
However, if there is no data to support such an indictment, if FRA is basing its assertions on impressions, anecdotes, interviews, then the accusations have no place being produced as evidence, data, information themselves. These accusations cannot simultaneously be the premise, the process, and the conclusion of its "in-depth" investigation.
In the individual areas of its investigation, FRA repeats this process whereby assertions become the recommendations for alterations to practices without any detail being provided documenting the weakness of the current practice, and the suitability of FRA's recommendation as a remecy to such weakness. The report states that "FRA found specific safety-critical shortfalls that affect all aspects of Metro-North." FRA does not specify what safety-critical shortfalls it found and how the current practices have contributed to the manifest decline in safe operations in any of the specific segments of its investigation-- track, operating rules, qualification and certification of locomotive engineers and conductors, roadway worker protection, train control systems, blue signal, OCC etc. etc.
Very little, if anything, criticized or found inadequate in this "in-depth" analysis is identified as in violation of FRA regulations for safe train operations. Consequently, most of FRA's recommendations devolve into "improve testing... improve training... enhance." And it also takes us to a situation where FRA has made assertions amounting to extreme negligence, and near-criminal if not criminal dereliction of responsibility without there being substantive violations of FRA's admittedly minimal standards.
Now this may be an indication of the limits to a "data-driven" evaluation/regulation methodology. It may mean that FRA itself has been collecting, and assessing uncritically, data, or the wrong data.
3. I could go on and on about this, but there's no point to that. There is a point to speaking directly to the issue, and the issue is this. Whenever you are asking a question about the safety and performance of a railroad, any railroad, you are in reality asking only one, and always the same, question: "Who's in charge?"
Are the officers of the railroad, nominally responsible for the compliance with the operating rules, procedures, and requirements of service, actually responsible, meaning having both the authority and the obligation, to ensure that compliance? Are those officers trained, qualified, organized, accountable for, and supported when performing that safety-critical and performance essential function? Are the operating officers of the railroad actually train to know the needs and the requirements of safe train operations as a complete system?
I worked for a famous/infamous general manager of Conrail, who later became vice-president of transportation and then senior vice-president of operations.
During one of the few discussions we had that didn't begin or end with him telling me, "Schanoes, you're fired," he told me something, one thing that sums up supervision on a railroad.
Said the famous/infamous person, "I do not hire trainmasters. I hire general officers and start them out as trainmasters." Then he told me to get back to work before he fired me.
My experience has been that when there is a deterioration in safe train operations it is not because "peformance" has been given the priority. My experience has been that safe train operations and performance improve together and decline together. My experience has been that to achieve that "ascent," you have to start from the ground-up, with your officers. My experience has been if you don't train your line supervisors to be general officers, you won't make it in this business. And that's as deep as it goes.
March 16, 2014
You broke my heart 'cause I couldn't dance,
You didn't even want me around,
But now I'm back to let you know
I can really shake 'em down
The Contours, "Do You Love Me" Gordy Records 1962