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» RAILforum » Passenger Trains » Amtrak » Deep Concerns

   
Author Topic: Deep Concerns
Vincent206
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Monday morning, December 18, 2017 could have been a day of great triumph for Amtrak. A popular train route was inaugurating faster service and an expanded schedule. The rail corridor between Seattle and Portland is economically vibrant, growing rapidly and a popular tourist destination. High(er) speed passenger rail service should be an enormous benefit to the business community, families and tourists by providing a reliable, convenient and safe travel option in the Pacific Northwest. At least, that was the goal of the $880 million AmtrakCascades project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Instead, what the world saw was one of the worst maiden voyages since the Titanic in 1911.

I would like to write about some of my deep concerns about the Dupont accident and the culture that couldn't prevent the tragedy that killed 3 passengers, injured scores and destroyed tens of million of dollars worth of equipment.

The NTSB report will come out in about 12-18 months and it will contain a thorough analysis of the facts, a probable cause and recommendations for future changes. I'll try to avoid speculating about anything that should be left to the experts but the first thing I'm deeply concerned about is the lack of a focus on safety at Amtrak. The list of fatal and non-fatal train accidents has grown too long for any complacency by Amtrak management with regards to creating a culture of safety. Safe operation of the trains needs to become more than a goal or a promise at Amtrak. It must become the primary mission of the company and it must be the first thought of every employees before they perform any function at work whether it's selling a ticket, lifting a suitcase or putting a locomotive into gear.

"Creating a culture of safety" can sound like corporate jargon that quickly goes in one ear and out the other without having any noticeable effect on behavior. But it really means that everyone at work is looking out for everyone else's safety and that as an individual employee, I know that my co-workers expect me to work in a manner that will prevent injuries to myself, my co-workers and the customers of the business. A safety culture also empowers individual workers to voice their concerns or ask questions without fear of repercussions if operating procedures are unclear or don't fully guarantee a safe work environment for everyone.

Management usually writes the safety manuals and sets the standards for compliance, but how much input do the people responsible for carrying out the tasks have in building the safety culture at their jobs? The people who are performing the tasks have a critical interest in ensuring that safety policies reflect the reality of the situation. The investigation of the Dupont accident will ask a lot of questions and I hope the final report will answer some of these questions that I have about the safety culture at Amtrak. Who set the training schedule for the T&E crews before the opening of the Point Defiance Bypass? Did the crews have enough time to learn the territory? Did the training reflect the challenges of the territory? Did anyone notice and voice concerns that the 30 mph curve could potentially be a precarious part of the tracks? Did everyone involved with operating the trains feel empowered to speak up and ask questions about their training and qualifications to safely operate their trains on the territory? Were any and all concerns and comments addressed? Amtrak can measure its commitment to creating a culture of safety by looking at the answers to those questions. I'm sure that everyone connected to Amtrak--passengers, workers, management--wants Monday's disaster to be the last time a crumpled railcar leads off the 6:00 news.

My second deep concern with Amtrak concerns the company's culture of service. Once the passengers and employees are confident that the railroad is being operated in a safe manner, the next priority should be to build a culture of service. Just like the culture of safety, the "culture of service" means that every employee knows that everyone else at the company is focused on delivering a reliable and valuable service to the customers that is more than just basic transportation.

On Tuesday, the day after the Dupont accident, I made a day trip between Seattle and Portland. My impression from that journey is that Amtrak has also lost its focus on building a company-wide culture of service. The onboard train crews that handled my trip were polite and friendly enough, but there clearly wasn't a focus on service that would make the Amtrak experience more than just transportation. Where I was most disappointed was at Portland Union Station. I arrived about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time of 540pm. The readerboard listed my train as "ON TIME" so I sat down and waited for boarding announcements. At 538pm (2 minutes before scheduled departure time) we were called to line up for seat assignments. No further announcements were made about the status of our train until 602pm (22 minutes past schedule departure) when the conductor suddenly appeared and started handing out seat assignments. We then were directed out to the train to find our way to our seats. Unfortunately that was a confusing process because the car signs on the side of the train weren't working and there wasn't anyone outside the train to help us with wayfinding to the correct cars. I was also one of 2 people in my car given a seat number that didn't exist. Luckily the train wasn't very full so we just sat down in empty seats (there were plenty). Finally, at 615pm (35 minutes late), we began our journey back to Seattle without any explanation or apology about the late departure. We also didn't have any sort of safety announcement at the start of this trip. Again, the train crews were friendly--Amtrak has finally learned to hire the smile--but the employees lacked motivation or empowerment to provide anything more than transportation.

I'll still continue to use Amtrak for many of my future trips. Overall it's safer than driving and more convenient than flying to nearby destinations. But, to keep my business, I expect the new management team to get the company focused on building a culture of safety that guarantees we all arrive at our destinations in good health. Then, I hope that Amtrak can build a culture of service that makes a train trip more valuable than just being a means of transportation between 2 points.

Posts: 735 | From: Seattle | Registered: Jan 2011  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
yukon11
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I share your concern, Vincent, and assume most Forum people would agree with that concern.

However, how do you get Amtrak to build a culture resolute in improving safety, on time performance, not to mention all the other problems with Amtrak?

I think a culture is only as good as the people who make up that culture. Amtrak has had a number of good CEO's and upper management people, in the past, in my opinion. However, I think you have to look not just at management but at the entire structure, from upper management down to the lowest skill level of workers. In that regard, Amtrak really needs to think about the overall quality of their working personnel, and ask themselves if they represent the quality they would really like. All too often the quality isn't there. Can Amtrak change their hiring practices? How do you replace what bad apples there are in the barrel?

On the optimistic side, the number of Amtrak accidents (track caused, equipment caused, and human caused) has gone down. From 2000 to 2014 the number of accidents decreased from 4.1 per million passenger miles to 1.7 per million passenger miles. However, only about 1/4 of Amtrak passenger train track now has PTC. If that number can go way up, I think the accident stats will decrease quite a bit.

I tried to look up information that would give one an idea of the rate of accidents for privately run passenger trains, in the 1940's and further back, when the train was the foremost means of long distance travel. I couldn't find much information.

Richard

Posts: 1494 | From: Santa Rosa | Registered: Jan 2004  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
George Harris
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quote:
Originally posted by yukon11:

On the optimistic side, the number of Amtrak accidents (track caused, equipment caused, and human caused) has gone down. From 2000 to 2014 the number of accidents decreased from 4.1 per million passenger miles to 1.7 per million passenger miles. However, only about 1/4 of Amtrak passenger train track now has PTC. If that number can go way up, I think the accident stats will decrease quite a bit.

I tried to look up information that would give one an idea of the rate of accidents for privately run passenger trains, in the 1940's and further back, when the train was the foremost means of long distance travel. I couldn't find much information.

Richard

Maybe it is my age, but I think the concept that all can be solved by dependance upon electronic crutches is wishful thinking or maybe even beyond that to the point of being a hallucianation. I have over the years developed great faith in the ability of man to screw up that which he can build. There have been at least two events on WMATA where the failure of the automatic systems to function as intended resulted in fatalities. I am not going to Monday morning quaterback what caused this particular overspeed derailment, and to suggest potential solutions when we do not know the why is not a rational act.

As to the accidents of the 1940's and 50's: An amazingly high number of passenger train miles were operating on lines controlled by timetables and train orders, that is, no signals whatsoever, much less all the fancy electronic overides. The silly 79 mph and 59/49 mph speed limits are a result of the ICC even then believing that electronics could solve problems. You can see the recommendation for installation of ABS following an accident even if the line only had a couple of trains a day. Be reasonalbe folks. The money would be more beneficial spent elsewhere. Some of these electronics solves all problems seems to come from the belief that the money barrel has no bottom. Not true the cash supply is finite and good management says you get the most bang for your buck and that may be elsewhwere than one more level of electronic oversight or control.

Because any railroad accident of any kind any where makes the news we lose sight of the fact that they are still far less in fatalities per mile than road accidents. It is just that road accidents are so common they remain local news wherever they are.

Service quality was another story. Generally the train crews took great pride in doing things well, and for the top runs on any given railroad, their performance was likely on the top manager's desk for every part of the company affected. It is likely that for 43, 44, 45 the accident rates were higher as everything that could roll was out there and everything, both equipment and people was getting worn and tired. I recall my grandmother saying that there were so many transportation accidents in the last years of the war they did not count the boys safe home until they walked in the door.

Posts: 2561 | From: Olive Branch MS | Registered: Nov 2002  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
   

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