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Knowing what you know

December 12th, 2012

I turn 45 tomorrow.

I am finishing my 18th year working at the M&E, and all in all I have been involved with the company for 29 years or so.

During that time, I have worked in all areas of the company, and during that time I have been taught by people who spent their whole careers working on the railroad and learned their crafts from people who spent their whole careers on the railroad.  I can pound spikes (not very well), re-rail a derailed piece of equipment using wooden blocking, metal plates and patience, aim crossing signals, thermite weld bond wires for signals, help perform a 92-day inspection on a locomotive, assemble a switch stand, and a list of skills that someone who isn’t in our industry could never have a grasp of what relevance they have to what we do.  I can also explain how the rail EDI system works, what demurrage is, how car hire is computed, how the 45G tax credit will benefit the short lines, how a rail rate is put together, and I can write a tariff.

What I have not done for any of these skills, and the thousands of others I have learned over the years, is go to a class for any of them.  I have either been taught in the field or have taught myself from the standards, and that knowledge has stood the test of time and operations at the M&E.  But now, there might be a change to all of that.

As part of the Rail Safety Act of 2008 there was a section about training standards for all crafts.  Without going into a long description of what it says, let’s just use the explanation of “we, as the government, know what you do is for the most part safe and works well, but we just don’t understand why it does or how you do it, so please tell us so that we can then go and tell you that you are doing it correctly.”  Yes, I am serious, that is what it says.  So, instead of the FRA being swamped with 500+ training standards from each railroad for each craft (yes, I said each craft), the FRA has asked the ASLRRA to create a set of training standard modules for each craft that their membership can use, and hopefully avoiding each railroad from having to create their own program and then having the FRA have to certify each one.

How will this new requirement affect us?  Right now, I’m not sure, but it does remind me about a situation that my father ran into when he started expanding the operations of the M&E to include running over NJTransit.  Two of our regular operating personnel, our engineer and our conductor, were functionally illiterate, and to operate on NJT both had to pass NJT’s rules test.  Both were consummate and safe operating personnel, but neither up to that point needed to pass a written test.  Each of them handled the situation in a different manner.  Our engineer, with the help of his family and my father, learned how to read, and got a 100 on his test the first time he took it.  Our conductor, on the other hand, decided that the best course for him was to take a demotion to brakeman, and not have to attempt to take the test (which would not be an option today), and he worked the rest of his career at the lower position.  Are we facing a similar situation with these new standards?  Maybe, and hopefully we will not push away those with knowledge and ability because of them.

—By  Steve Friedland

steven-fb.jpgSteve Friedland is a child of the railroad industry.  Following summers and vacations working on the track gang for the family-owned Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, he started full-time in 1994.  He has worked in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations, and currently is a member of the management team for the company as director of operations in Morristown, N.J. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry.  He currently serves as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and is chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He also is a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

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