...where these things might take you. Sometimes, it's just a remark, or an article in the newspaper.. or someone trying to make a case for something. And then? And then you start thinking and that's always dangerous.
Thinking may, not necessarily, but may just lead to a little research and before you know it your questioning remarks, articles, interviews, official statements, official reports, official recommendations. You're questioning everything.
Entertaining interlude: Karl Marx, living in London after the failed revolutions of 1848-1849 sought and obtained employment as a railroad clerk. The duration of his employment with the railroad was....one day. He hated the work, and because of his terrible handwriting, his employer returned the feeling. It was his one, and only, venture into the world of regular employment.
Next thing you know, you're doubting eveything.
You find you don't agree with anything, or anybody except with those others who doubt everything-- who think "there must be a better way."
So... I started thinking after reading a journalist's attempt to make a case for the employees in the LIRR contract dispute. The website libn.com posted an article by Kris LaGrange entitled "LIRR employees' lives at stake." LaGrange advises that "the railroad is a hot mess...MTA workers are dying and we have to ask: Does anyone really care other than their union?"
He concludes "...we must understand that these men are dying. If a strike is needed to save lives, so be it."
"Wow," was my first thought. Men are dying, and no one, except the union(s) care(s)? Holy press conference, where's Senator Schumer? Where's FRA? Get the submarines ready. General quarters. Prepare for deep dive2.
Except I usually have more than just the first thought. My second thought was "where's the evidence?" Yeah, that hard, nasty, unfuzzy, yes or no, black and white, is or is not, evidence, data, facts.
Mr. LaGrange thinks he provides some evidence. He cites three incidents. I place them in chronological order: 1) 2001- heat exhaustion caused a worker in Queens to pass out and fall onto the third rail 2) 2007-another track worker nearly loses an ear to a passing train 3) 2009- another track workers received flash burns from contacting live 3rd rail, leaving the employee with some permanent damange. Nine years, three incidents........three non-fatal incidents.
Now certainly any one or all of the three might have resulted in a fatality, but the facts are the none of the cited incidents led to a fatality.
After that, I kept right on thinking so I went to the Presidential Emergency Board's recommendations regarding the contract dispute between the LIRR unions and MTA to see what the unions were demanding to reduce injury and risk, and what MTA's objections were.
PEB #244 has published a fifty page review of the issues and its recommendations regarding the matters in dispute. None of the issues in dispute concerns employee safety.
All of the work rule changes being sought by MTA concern costs-- overtime, differential pay, paid leave, penalty payments, creating new and differing classes of wages, pensions and work rules, etc. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum. There is not a single work rule change being sought by MTA that impacts on track safety for roadway workers or train operating safety for employees and passengers.
Apparently, the unions' response to these requested changes has not provided any evidence that the change will reduce the safety of the operation.
Back in the day when I was a railroad operating officer, we took a very dim view of employees claiming to be sick in order to avoid service. We called that using "sickness as a subterfuge."
Transparently, the author of the article is utilizing safety as a subterfuge, attempting to manipulate the concern triggered by the accidents on Metro-North Railroad in order to advocate a collective bargaining position. Such manipulation is irresponsible at best, and believe me this article is nowhere near the best. It's junk journalism, exactly the same type of junk journalism, with a different agenda, that you get from conservatives who argue(d) that the problem with safety on a certain railroad was the exorbitant amounts of money MTA paid in wages and pensions to the workers on that railroad. Conflating collective bargaining disputes with safe train operations whether from the side of "labor" or that of "proper management" is recklessly irresponsible.
What was it Sam & Dave sang in "Soul Man"? "When I start lovin', I can't stop"? Well, these days, I've had to make a slight adjustment to those lyrics-- "When I start thinking, I can't stop." And I can't. So my thoughts took me to FRA's safety data pages where FRA makes available to the public, and with no charge, its statistical evaluations of injuries, accidents, incidents that occur on the railroads. And there, because I wanted to see how bad things were on the LIRR, I queried the Ten Year Accident/Incident Overview by Railroad, requesting the data for the LIRR.
The numbers are not good for the period 2004-2013, or rather, the trend of the number is not good. The frequency of employee on duty injuries (calculated per 200,000 employee hours) has increased from 2.8 per 200,000 hours in 2004 to 3.5 per 200,000 hour in 2013. But before we start firing the torpedoes, let's look at how that compares with the rate for all commuter railroads in the same period. The rate for all commuter railroads fell from 2004 to 2013 from 4.0 to 3.7 per 200,000 hours. And that's good. The trend is your friend. But you know what? The LIRR rate is still better than the national average. Amazing isn't it?
But wait, there's more because when I start thinking, I can't stop. So because FRA has found the recent performance of MNR so serious a threat to rail safety that it has taken the unprecedented steps of disseminating an open letter to an agency that does not oversee the rail operations; has issued an emergency order that identifies MNR practices as unsafe when those very same practices are used across the entire commuter rail industry; has issued a report that supposedly describes, evaluates, and offers mitigating steps for MNR's "poor safety culture" without providing any evidence of such poverty, I thought I'd check out the Ten Year Accident/Incident Overview for the railroad everybody loves to hate, Metro-North. In 2004, MNR had a rate of 4.6 injuries per 200,000 employee hours significantly above the 2.8 of the LIRR, and above the national average of 4.0. In 2013, the MNR rate was 3.0-- below the LIRR and the national average.
Now these are statistics, but supposedly, safety performance is the result of training, operating rule instruction, clarity regarding procedures-- all those issues FRA thought it was analyzing in its deep dive, and for which FRA want MNR to develop and implement a plan for improvement.
So, if MNR is so deficient in these safety critical factors, and yet its performance has been better than the national average, what does that say about the other commuter operations? What does it say about FRA, that its recommendations are reactive, limited to a railroad whose immediate performance is certainly deficient, but not proactive, applied to other railroads where the evidence of longer term performance is below that of Metro-North. It says to me that FRA better hurry up and get moving...to those other properties.
What I found most interesting about this was the cycle, the increase and decrease the rate showed over time. MNR recorded steady declines in the rate of injury every year for the years 2004 to 2008, when it reached its best, lowest ratio of 2.1. In 2009 the rate moves upward and stays in the 2.4-3.0 range through 2013.
Well, now, since once I start thinking I can't stop, how to explain it? Was on-time performance less important 2004-2008? Absolutely not. Maybe....wait a minute 2008 was the year I retired... maybe it's all about me? Nope, not even I am that narcissistic.
Well then, 2008 was the year Peter Cannito retired from Metro-North. Is it all about him? I regard Pete Cannito as one of the three best railroad officers for whom I've ever worked. So I think it might partly be that-- partly.
But, I kept thinking, I couldn't stop and so I went back to the data. I found that the LIRR also had its best year in 2008, and while Pete Cannito is really good, I don't think his mere presence at MNR would influence safety on the LIRR. So, I kept thinking, check the data again, and you know what? The entire commuter rail industry had its best year, in terms of reduced rates of employee injuries on duty in 2008.
That made me go hmmm...and I thought and I thought, what happened in 2008 that could have stopped the progress that the railroads were making? What could it have been? Did all the railroads start to overvalue OTP? Maybe. But you know that guy Marx I referred to up above? He was the orignal "follow the cash" guy.
You know what happened in 2008. The economy tanked, and for many it's still in that tank. Money for public transportation, including commuter rail was pinched, and tightly.
Money changes everything, and lack of money changes everything more. So then I thought... all those who were only too eager too eager to have the Fed and the Treasury bail out AIG, broker the merger of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, were so impressed by the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the 50 or so other special programs, investment vehicles that pumped about $300 billion of the $700 billion available into Fanny and Freddy, and Ally, and GM, and Chrysler, and Citibank, and JP Morgan Chase... maybe they should take a look and see who really paid for that and what the repercussions of those payments were. Here's the skinny: the banks were saved; short-rations for public services.
No, collective bargaining matters are NOT safety matters. But I will tell you what are, and how the chain is linked: financial decisions are operating decisons, and therefore financial decisions are safety decisions.
Anybody who thinks the problems at commuter railroads are not reflections of economic decisions needs to keep thinking.
More thoughts to come.... bank on it.