Isn't it incredible how many partners and partnerships a relatively simple, straightforward, operation like a railroad can generate?
I must have first heard the term "partnering" used in the context of a railroad and not a dance or a 3-legged race or an adults only party that everyone but you knew about but nobody you knew was ever invited to, more than 20 years ago at the "kickoff" a very big, very expensive capital project that was going to make extreme demands on track availability in Grand Central Terminal.
The pro-partnering "team" had scheduled a 3 day retreat, complete with catered food and "partnering" experts for the "critical staff" of the contractor on the project, the railroad's capital projects team, and the operating officers who were actually responsible for safe train operations in Grand Central Terminal before, during, and after the project.
It was a great plan with just one small flaw-- the operating officers didn't attend. We couldn't attend. Our responsibilities didn't allow us to attend a three day retreat with the contractors and the capital department. But they, the contractors and the railroad's capital people, attended and by all accounts had a swell time partnering and learning the names of each other's kids, and what every opposite number wanted out of this life, and how every one could help every opposite number achieve that. I believe they all actually took some kind of oath; or signed some sort of promise to partner. I heard later that the food was top-notch.
Then something happened. The actual work had to begin. Real performance had to be measured; real problems had to be resolved; different, even opposing, but no less real interests arose between the recent partners working on the different sides of the contract.
Since we, the operating officers, had not developed the contract, and worse, were not certified partners, we were forbidden from talking directly to the contractor to determine what was needed.
The partners disagreed, the partners fought, the partners forgot the names and birthdays of each others kids......and the project shut down. The project shut down after we had removed several tracks from service. The contractor partner left his equipment parked on top of the capital department partner's flat cars which the operating department non-partners had placed on the tracks as requested by the aforementioned partners.
Not possessing the necessary tools to partner, I simply informed both parties that if work did not resume in 48 hours, I would remove the flat-cars from those tracks and restore the tracks to service.
The capital projects partners told me I couldn't do that. I told the capital projects representatives to come back in 48 hours so they could watch me do what they said I couldn't do.
The contractor partners said, through the medium of the capital projects partners, that they, the contractor partners, will claim penalty payments for not being afforded the stipulated outages. I told the capital projects partners to tell the contractor partners that they could bill me. Personally.
Work was not resumed within the allotted time and the flat cars, with the contractor's equipment, were moved back to the yard. The platform tracks were restored to service. The traction power department restored the 3rd rail power. A test train was run just to make sure everything was operating as intended and while the capital projects partners whimpered and moaned, rail service resumed on those tracks.
That was my introduction to partnering, and all in all, I think I handled it graciously.
Once these supposed "better ways" with better buzzwords take hold, there's no stoppiing the spread. It's like a virus, spread by contact, and it insinuates itself into everything, into every cell that make up the organism we call a railroad. Pretty soon, nobody says anything without the word "partnering" being somewhere in the sentence, for example, this: "Hi Jim, hope you slept well last night and are ready for some first class partnering today. By the way, we're short 20 cars for this morning's requirment, partner. How are the kids doing in after-school gymnastics?"
Man, did we "partner." Guided by the Human Resources department, we were going to partner with the Human Resources department for one; and we were going to partner with out labor organizations for two. Hell, we were going to partner our way to whole new level and standard of railroading, cynical jaded New Yorkers to the contrary not withstanding.
In the paradise to be gained through partnering , regarding a conductor, or a locomotive engineer, or track worker, or a car inspector as an employee with certain obligations to the service, and deserving of specific considerations to insure the ability to meet those obligations was so yesterday, so obsolete, so unproductive of an environment as to be grounds for removal of officers from their positions. I know because I was removed from mine (temporarily) for not comprehending, ingesting, believing in the city on the hill that could be within our reach if we only partnered. We have our vision! Get on your radios, identify yourself by railroad, name, and position and Say Hallelujah! and if you can't or won't say it, be gone M#####F#####. That last part, that last word I understood.
Being the culturally deficient person that I was, and am, I just didn't get it, "it" being a "culture" where every employee shared the responsibility for every decision, and of course, shared in the rewards. I still don't get it because not every employee shares in the responsibility for every decision, and as a matter of fact one of the practical functions of the labor organizations at a railroad is to deflect, disavow, minimize the responsibility of individual employees for even their own decisions, much less those of the carrier. Go ahead and show me I'm wrong.
We had our labor partners.
Then.....the regulators decided that regulation would be better if they partnered with the railroad. So they were going to be our partners. That meant that whenever we had meetings to review operating plans, operating changes, operating failures, FRA would be sitting in as our partner.
So we had labor partners, and government partners, and our contractor partners, and our consultant partners, and of course, our big daddy partner the state-umbrella agency of which we were a segment.
But of course, none of them was or is or will or can ever be a "partner." How do I know that? Well, it's because railroading is a simple business, and there's a simple test for determining for determining your partner(s). It's called "Who Takes the Fall?" Answer that question, and you find your partners.
Way back in the day when I still lived in Chicago there was a fatal accident on the Chicago El. Rounding a curve, one train ran into the rear of train stopped in the curve. The moving train not only came off the tracks, it came off the elevated structure, tumbling to the ground, with the first and third cars landing on their sides in the street. The motorman, when able, was interviewed. He was reported to have said, "I came around the curve, and saw the train stopped in front of me. I saw we were going to hit. I made the sign of the cross, and then I took the fall." Sounds like it came right out of Dashiell Hammett doesn't it?
So imagine that your locomotive engineer operates at an excessive speed around a curve and derails the train, injuring and/or killing several passengers. "Who takes the fall?"
So...if you want to know who your partners are, take a look at those who might, who can, who will take the fall with you. Fatal train accident caused by locomotive engineer failure? Does the general chairman of the engineers take responsibility? Does he or she "take the fall"? Anybody here, or anywhere, ever hear of a union officer being dismissed for taking responsibilty for unsafe train operations? No? Okay, no partners there.
FRA? Has the adminstrator of FRA, has a deputy administrator, has a regional administrator ever been dismissed, or busted, or accepted responsibility for a railroad's train operations in the United States? No? OK, one less partner to worry about.
NTSB? Anybody ever hear of a member of the NTSB or the board as a whole accepting responsibilty for unsafe behaviors in the transportation sector? Nope? Another non-partner.
Senators, legislators, journalists, consultants, contractors? Do any of them take the fall? No way, they either are, or hire, lawyers to not only keep them from the fall, but keep them in the clear when you're taking the fall.
Can these agencies, organizations, individuals, ever become partners? Now I know never to say never, so I won't say never. I'll just say it's highly unlikely. And why is it unlikely? Because none of these partners have the same obligations, responsibilities, interests that we, or you do.
Nobody else lives the needs of the rail service, which needs are to provide the advertised service while maintaining the maximum level of safety. Nobody else lives that calculus in which we, as operating officers, live which is the constant adjustment, the continuous approximation, the calculus of compromise of safety and performance. So let's be perfectly clear, when people say, "oh, he or she or they compromised safety in favor of on time performance," those people are saying absolutely nothing about either the safety or the performance of the railroad. Every action on the railroad represents some sort of risk, some potential for the compromise of safety. That's why we have rules. So we can manage, rational risk.
Now that being said, we, as operating officers can make some mistakes. We can be negligent. We can abuse our authority and distort the calculus. However, the railroad can only function by making such a calculus.
My British (railroad) cousins, who under the years of British Rail accumulated an organizational knowledge, wisdom even, concerning this calculus, once told me seriously joking, "The only safe railroad is one where all signals are red, all trains are stopped."
Of course, it no longer functions as a railroad, but that's the point.
So if a railroad is deferring maintenance, and poorly training its employees, then its officers are poorly supervising the railroad, and doing so in response to some other needs, and not the "needs" of "performance" over safety.
Those needs may be financial. The needs may be political. The need may be to protect labor peace. But those needs all add up to bad math.
Pretending that "performance" has been emphasized at the expense of "safety" is nothing but a way of ducking the real issues, and the real responsibility.
So you, if you're running a railroad, if you want to know who your partners are, look to those who will take the fall with you when push comes to shove-- those will be your operating officers. Those are the only partners you have. Those are the only partners you need.
More to come......count on it.
March 14, 2014
Feet, don't fail me now
George Clinton and the P-Funk Nation