In case I haven't made myself clear, my criticism of FRA's "Deep Dive" operation and report as insufficient, inadequate to the analysis, evaluation, and remediation of the problems of safe train operations on Metro-North Railroad does not mean I have an axe to grind with or against FRA.
I do not. After all, while none of my best friends work for FRA, friendship is overrated in this business. More importantly some of the most talented people I've ever worked with (and you know who you are, Jungle Dog) now work for FRA. The agency, and the industry, are the better for it.
I think regulation has been and will continue to be essential to advancement and improvement in both safety and operating performance. I think that necessarily, since we are dealing with an industry where innumerable different, particular actions yield a whole, such regulation must be data driven. There's no getting around it. My friend Ron Lindsey says, "If we can detect, we can protect," which to my mind is another iteration of the adage, "in order to manage, we must be able to measure."
I think we look at trends when we regulate, which is different than when we operate, because when we operate, when we make real time operating decisions, we have to look at what can happen that we have not already accounted for, what the potentialities are in every individual circumstance. Operating is a real-time process which adds to, changes, modifies our accumulated experience, whereas regulation is based on the accumulated experience. Converting the real time experience, embedding it into an algorithm must be data-driven.
That, in truth, is what the algorithm is-- a set of rules, procedures, based on experience, based on likely outcomes. The strength of the algorithm is how much accumulated experience has been poured into it, and yet, obviously there's a vulnerability in any and all algorithms.
Real life is exactly that, real life and it is not obligated to conform to what happened yesterday or the last 99 yesterdays. Anybody who thinks they can regulate this industry, establish rules and regulations based on fragmentary, isolated reports is making a critical, even vital mistake. That is why process, procedure, data, are so fundamental, necessary, and indeed sufficient to regulation. The task of the regulator is to set standards, establish limits, promulgate requirments which, of necessity, will always be minimums for the conduct of this business.
The regulator must itself abide by its processes, its remit, so to speak of regulation. It cannot decide to eschew the data-driven process and issue directives based on impressions, anecdotes, feelings, senses. It should not, because it cannot, make assessments of "culture," "atmosphere," "commitment," etc. The regulator can evaluate process, procedure, data, and then provide the evaluation, analysis, and the details re shortcomings in process, procedure, data that may (or may not) lead to an undesired outcome, i.e. the degradation of safety.
My dissatisfaction with FRA's latest actions, it's "Deep Dive," does not mean that I think "safety" is a secondary concern in railroad operations. I invite any and all to examine my record of commitment to safe operating practices during my tenure at Metro-North.
My commitment to safe train operations is such that when PATH wanted to restore high-density passenger train operations to its World Trade Center station after Hurrican Sandy had destroyed PATH's centralized traffic control system, FRA suggested that PATH contact me to assist in the development and execution of a manual block train control system. Which I did, happily (and at a discount, I might add, but not free). Which system ran safely, successfully, due to the diligence of those charged with the execution, operating trains and governing train movement, for several months. Which ran safely and successfully with headways of about 4 minutes. That accomplishment should be a source of pride for PATH. I know it is for me.
But (and there's always that "but") obviously, in my opinion, FRA's "Deep Dive" report does not fulfill the regulator's obligation, and provides very little real insight into the problems of MNR.
As a consequence, FRA provides no real solution, no template of a solution that can be applied not just to MNR, but to the industry as a whole.
Why? you ask.
(Nostalgic--not hardly-- interruption follows:
Back in the day, when I worked the 3rd trick STO's (supervisor of train operations) job on Conrail's New Jersey Division, I had the immense, but dubious, pleasure of participating in the morning conference call with the Atlantic region headquarters staff, namely that famous/infamous general manager I mentioned earlier, the regional general superintendent of transportation and whomever else they invited to the session which struck me as the railroad equivalent of being put on a spit and roasted slowly, while those on the other end of the phone pissed gasoline on the hot coals. Catch my drift?
The goal of this inquisition was not what you think it might have been-- to understand what didn't work, what did, and what could be improved; no railroad officer worth his or her salt needs this sort of conference call to determine that. The goal was rather to teach that "stupid-fuck"-- as in "Schanoes, you sorry ass excuse for a supervisor, you stupid-fuck..." --on the other end that he/she better know the answer to every, but every question.
And how was the lesson taught? In and with a single word: "Why?" Whatever explanation, analysis of events, delays, problems you might offer, "why" was the once and forever response-- until you couldn't provide an answer to "why," and then the grand inquisitors, pleased as punch with themselves, would launch into their characterization of you personally as a waste of time, space, air, and most importantly money.
They would go on and on with this until somebody had enough and hung up the phone. Needless to say, that somebody was one of the grand inquisitors. Most of us, us sorry bags of rocks, had families to support, and were not willing to jeopardize the welfare of our spouses and children through the silent "fuck you" of banging down the phone
I promised myself, I would always have an answer to "why" which meant. of course, that when I spoke with trainmasters out in the field, or the district dispatchers, I tortured them, almost, like I knew I would be tortured... always asking "why"-- which of course was what the grand inquisitors were trying to teach us bags of rocks.)
Anyway, back to why? The answer is that because FRA's analysis is not data driven, is not an analysis of practices and the results of practices, it lacks the background, qualifying analysis, that might give FRA's assessments and impressions validity. And what is that background? Why, it's simple-- and simply the comparison of Metro-North's practices to those of the rest of the commuter rail service providers.
Really. Let's look at the details. FRA says MNR's overall track inspection process needs to be improved and there are three areas of concern: inadequeate supervison and inadequate training; the "general state" of track maintenance; and the lack of track time.
Details? Comparison to to other commuter rail providers' overall track inspection process? None. Comparison to other providers' training process? None. Comparison to how much track time other providers allow for inspection or repair? None.
Yet, somehow, MNR's procedures are evidence of a defective and inferior safety culture.
Railroad operating rules? According to FRA MNR rules regarding grade crossing operations are not in compliance with the federal regulations. Details? None. Comparison to other commuter rail providers rules and procedures for these conditions? None? Possible impact of MNR rules on safe train operations over grade crossings? Not provided. Concrete presentation of increased risk due to MNR "deviation"? None.
Engineer and Conductor Qualification and Certification? Here at least FRA provides some explicit language regarding its exceptions to MNR, but again there is no comparison to how these matters are handled on other railroads.
Roadway worker protection rules? FRA again finds a problem with MNR training programs and its cellphone policy. Again, no comparison to other commuter service providers' training of RWP EIC personnel, nor other providers' cellphone policies with respect to employees not operating trains, or in the cab of a locomotive.
Train control (signal) systems? Basically, FRA's exception applies ony to what it regards as a suitable recordkeeping system. Really? Record keeping is specified by federal regulation, specifically 49 CFR 236.110. Either MNR is in compliance, or it is not. If it is not in compliance, it is the obligation of the regulator to specify in its report to Congress on the operating procedures and practices of the railroad where and how the railroad is in violation. Again, FRA provides its standard declamation about improving training, and provide more track time without regard or reference to how the industry, as an industry, manages these areas.
Operations control center? Again various areas of concern, without evaluation of context. FRA cites possible fatigue of the rail traffic controllers on MNR. Working hours of those providing instructions for the movement of trains are regulated by FRA. Either MNR is in compliance, or it is not in compliance with FRA regulation. If FRA regulations are inadequate to this issue, but MNR is in compliance with the regulation, then FRA needs to show how MNR's compliance is compromising safe train operations. FRA does not.
FRA cites the lack of sound barriers between dispatching station, without however relating what the overall noise levels are in the OCC. MNR rail traffic controller stations are equipped with headsets and microphones for "low-volume" communications. Has there been any incidents where a RTC in the OCC could not communicate with a train due to ambient noise levels in the OCC?
MOW Employee fatigue? Again, how do MNR practices compare to the rest of the industry? Yes indeed, weekday and weekend overtime is common, and sure as hell is expensive. However the nature of the commuter business is that, usually, the biggest windows of opportunity for track maintenance are on weekends when traffic density is reduced. However, again, work rules, negotiated and agreed to with labor unions limit MNR's ability to assign crews to weekends as part of their regular 5 day assignments.
Moreove, since these very same conditions have been, more or less, with minor alteration, the default conditions on MNR, we should ask, and answer, what has occurred recently and dramatically within the space of a year, to make this issue a contributor to the general decline in rail operating safety?
I know, I know. Details are the obsession of the small-minded, but I was taught, bag of rocks that I was, by some very famous/infamous types, that the devil, the lord, all the saints, and your future as a railroad operating officer were all wrapped up in the details.
Which gets me to this: This report by FRA represents a giant step backward; a step back from not just what FRA has helped achieve since 1981, but moreover what the US railroads have actually accomplished since 1981. Specifically, the FRA report is built on the presumption, which it then repackages as a conclusion, that MNR sacrificed safety to on-time performance; that somehow MNR became obsessed with on-time performance to the point that it pushed aside all other considers; that there is a conflict, a point of mutual exclusion between performance and safety.
This is a fundamenally regressive evaluation by FRA. What the story of the "ascent" of MNR proved, what the story of the improvement of the entire rail industry, freight and passenger proves since 1981 is that you cannot have one without the other; you cannot improve your performance without improving your level of safe-train operations. Look a the data that FRA itself provides on safety. Look at the numbers the AAR, and many other sources, provide about revenue ton-miles per track mile; per employee hour; per train.
Performance is what rail service, passenger and freight are selling. Performance is the product, the only product a railroad has to sell, as in "We will transport you or your automobiles, or your grain from point A to point B at the times we advertise we will do it, and we can do it without damaging you, or your automobiles, or your grain." Our business is just that simple.....and just that demanding.
MNR may have failed to meet that demand, and the evidence certainly indicates it did, but it did not do so because it valued one, performance over the other, safety.
March 19, 2014