The Interpretation of Bad Dreams
Many of us in this business have a recurring, and a shared, nightmare: We dream we wrote a lap-order; We miscalculated safe-braking distance; We didn't account for X, or Y, or Z, or all three in the safe-braking analysis.
There are any number of variations on this theme, as if an infinite number of demented malevolent chimps pounding on an infinite number of keyboards connected to an evil-genius word processing program had all come up with the works of a particularly diabolical Shakespeare.
No matter what the forms of the dreams, the content is the same. Anxiety, dread, fear. "Did I do it right?" "Did I do enough?" And the subtext to those questions: "Can I control everything."
We can answer the first question with a simple"yes" or "no."
We can answer thesecond question with a not-so-simple "not yet"
We can answer the third question with a simple "no."
So get used to not sleeping too well during your railroad career. And avail yourself of naps whenever possible.
We know when we've done it right. Railroading is a simple business. Do the math. The simple math. Watch the trend. The trend is your friend. Write it down. Follow up. Think it through. Take it home. Take it apart. Never take "yes" for a satisfactory answer. Never say "yes" if you're not satisfied. Repeat as often as necessary, and it's always necessary-- which gets us to the second question, and the second answer, "not yet."
Keep doing it right is the meaning of "not yet."
And the third question. My advice is to ignore it. Never bring it to work with you. Try not to take it home. Talk about it only with your therapist, or with those who are just like you, who do it right, don't think there is ever enough "doing it right," and worry about everything, particularly the things they can't control.
The derailment in Spain brings all those things to mind. As did the runaway and explosion in Lac Megantic. As did the derailment in France. As did..... and on and on.
The International Railway Journal produced an analysis here explaining the train control systems and their capabiliities in use on the sections of track involved in yesterday's derailment.
In a nutshell:
Did these items cause the derailment? Certainly not. But they didn't prevent the derailment and that's what train control systems can do, and must do.
Well, be that as it may, this event should put to rest the debates, and the arguments against two critical programs for rail safety in the United States: 1)PTC and 2) the FRA's Crash-Worthiness Standards.
Back in the day, the day being 1996 after the NJT collision in Seacaucus and the MARC collision in Maryland, FRA proposed its crash-worthiness standards for locomotives and control cars. Like most operating officers, I groaned and thought-- "Wait. We want to spend those dollars on prevention of collisions, not "survivability."
That's a good sentiment-- prevention over mitigation--but you see it depends on believing we can account for, we can control everything. It's the hubris, and the delusion, of experience and authority. I know what I know and more; I can direct all that occurs. Point being our algorithms of prevention are derived from our experiences, and thus account for statistical probability not for the universe of possibilities.
So... fortunately in this instance, FRA didn't listen to me, or more correctly they listened and they were not convinced... not because they knew better than me and other railroad officers, but because they were more willing to accept the fact that they didn't know everything, couldn't account for everything, and thus couldn't prevent everything.
I like to tell people "You should see the looks on the faces of my "left-wing' friends when I tell them I fired people and while I didn't enjoy firing anyone (well almost anyone), there was never anyone I regretted firing; that I wouldn't fire again if I had to do it all over again."
I fired employees who represented a threat to the safety of themselves and/or others. Simple math that.
And you should see the looks on the faces of my right-wing friends (yeah, I have a few) when I tell them "Those who think government regulation is always a imposition, a negative for business, don't understand how important government regulation is to advancing safety. Case in point, FRA and crash-worthiness standards."
FRA got it right, and the people in the US ought to be thankful that there is a regulatory body that knows railroad officers don't know everything thing there is to know about human beings and human factors.
Get your rest.
July 26, 2013
A Safer Railroad is Better Railroading