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December 2008

Rail News: Rail Industry Trends

University of Wisconsin-Madison’s ‘Best Operating Practices’ course focuses on rail operations basics, core management skills


By Pat Foran, Editor 

As mid- and senior-level rail managers continue to retire at a consistent clip, spreading the wealth of institutional knowledge is becoming an increasingly daunting challenge for North American railroads. What can keepers of the rail flame do to try to ensure they transfer the wisdom they’ve still got in-house? And if it isn’t in-house, where can they turn to help their best and brightest get it?

Some roads send them to railroad school. There are a handful of programs out there, ranging from Michigan State University’s certificate course in railway management to the University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute’s “Executive Masters Program.” This fall, another institute of higher learning stepped in to offer an operations-oriented course of its own.

On Oct. 21-22, the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering’s Department of Engineering and Professional Development unveiled “Freight Railroads: Best Operating Practices.” The aim is to boost enrollees’ knowledge of operations basics, and hone managerial skills and competencies.

“The idea came up about 18 months ago — Earl Currie perhaps is the instigator, based on the books he’s written,” said C. Allen Wortley, director of the Railroad Engineering Program, adding that Currie, a longtime rail operations officer, served as the course’s co-developer. “We launched it on the premise that it would be experimental — we’d see how it went down.”

It seemed to go down pretty well. The course drew 47 students from various walks of transport life, including this reporter for the Day Two portion of the program.

During Day Two’s kick-off session — “Network Management and Continuous Improvement” — Rod Richardson, Union Pacific Railroad’s general superintendent-Chicago service unit, provided a snapshot of UP’s operating network. He spelled out objectives and service drivers, and sharing the Class I’s long-term operating technology strategy. Richardson also discussed how intermodal’s rise has changed the lives of folks in the operating department.

Along the way, he colorfully contrasted UP’s present with its past.

“When I first hired out in ’76, people [at the railroad] were still carrying guns and holsters — it was a rogue culture,” he said. “A lot has changed over 30 years — not just among employees, but with management.”

Anatomy of an Operations Officer

By talking about culture, Richardson set up the rest of the day nicely: Ultimately, operations is about many things, the students were told, and operating managers need to develop a variety of competencies if they’re to have a shot at becoming effective leaders.

On the management side, there’s been an influx of non-railroaders during the past 20 years but especially the past 10; with them, they’ve brought different managerial ideas and styles. And it’s changing the way managers and employees interact — and, so, how they learn from each other. On the employee side, there simply are a lot fewer of them; the fewer colleagues a worker has, the fewer people he or she has to learn from. And that can affect how quickly workers catch on, as well.

At UP, which currently employs about 49,000 crew workers, it takes six to nine months to get a candidate qualified and another six to nine months to get an engineer qualified, Richardson said. Compare that to the training time Conrail Inc. President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Batory received before he began working full-time in 1971 for the Detroit Toledo & Ironton Railroad.

“When I signed on, it was two weeks — you went out there and learned from four other people,” said Batory, a Day Two lecturer. “Today, it’s just much harder. You can’t learn it from a book. You learn it from observation and from doing it.”

But retaining what you pick up isn’t enough. You have to build on what you’ve learned if you hope to move up the rail operations ladder, students were told.

“Operations managers need to look at the big picture and the details — you can’t have shallow divers,” as instructor Currie put it during his presentation. “If you’re going to make a career out of operations, you have to have a willingness to probe into details.”

Currie did some probing of his own. He detailed the nature of the railroad business for the uninitiated and initiated alike, and also made the culture connection:

“It’s a capital-intensive industry, with an unforgiving work environment. ... It’s complex and intertwined, with vestiges of the old command-and-control culture and the new culture, which is a competitive, market-based, run-it-as-a-business environment.”

Currie time and again returned to the development of competencies and, well, the managerial basics (“You have to ‘be the company’ to the employees and represent the company’s values. ... You have to understand how to manage through the culture and social systems employees work in — from knowing their attitudes toward safe work practices to dealing with ‘troubled’ employees to having an ability to manage rest and avoid fatigue — especially with the new legislation.”)

In case-study fashion, Currie also discussed the operating approaches and “best practices” of the Big Six Class Is. Before launching in, he reiterated the day’s mantra: “You never stop learning in this business.”

It all came together when Conrail’s Batory delivered his “Leadership and Operation” lecture. In sharing anecdotes from his rail stops — he’s had stints with the Grand Trunk Western Railroad, the Southern Pacific, the Belt Railway of Chicago and Conrail — Batory pieced together the operations philosophy he’s shaped during the past 38 years. He started by stressing the need for sincerity and consistency on the safety leadership front.

“While the transition was taking place — going from seven-man crews to two — we had to rethink the way we do the work, and this has been something that’s been challenging for us, as an industry,” Batory said.

The Accountability Call

Of course, safety leadership goes beyond merely fulfilling the fundamental need to adhere to rules and regulations. It also calls for analyzing safety data (“It’s amazing what you can learn from a database”), rewarding more than scolding (“A pat on the back goes a long way; ‘I gotcha’ only goes so far”), taking corrective action swiftly (“Deficiencies have to be confronted then and there”) and never assuming. (“If you’re not sure, stop. This is not an industry where you can wing it”)

Batory also discussed leadership and communication skills in a “responsibility” and “accountability” context.

“How many of you have said, or had it said to you, ‘It’s not my job?’” he asked, seeking a show of hands (many went up). “When you split up responsibility and accountability, it gets messy. Once it’s laid out and you get buy-in, you don’t hear ‘It’s not my job’ anymore.”

Batory, too, stressed the need to cultivate internal and external relationships (“A railroad line operator can’t operate in a vacuum”) and the benefits of what he termed “fact-based” measurement systems, citing real, rail-life experiences as cases in point.

“We all have opinions, but what do you have that’s fact based vs. ‘When I was there, this is the way we did it?’” he asked.

Plenty of Q&A

Checking presumptions at the door and digging deeper to find a better way is a key part of the learning process. So is student-teacher communication. The students had helped generate some pretty lively discussions on Day One, Currie said.

“These people are used to communicating, so they don’t hold back,” he added.

They didn’t on Day Two, either. They asked instructors to shed light on railroads’ approach to the capital spending planning process (“What is your planning process like for capital spending? How does it change when the economy’s the way it is?”) ... to growth prospects (“I’m wondering how you’re going to unclog all those choke points and physical constraints to carry all that freight that’s coming within 20 years time?”) ... to the increasingly nuanced art of community relations (“With all the expansion to come, how do you maintain a peaceful co-existence?”) ... to the devil in the demographic details. (“We know the industry is poised to grow, but what is being done to attract new young people?”)

The questions they asked were as varied as their backgrounds. Despite the word “freight” in the course title, state transportation department officials, federal officials, consultants and transit agency reps were among the students. If the early returns were an indication, they didn’t leave disappointed. Wortley was “quite pleased” with the course feedback he’d received as of late November.

“We don’t have all of the forms back, but on a scale of 1 to 5, it was rated 4.2 — that’s pretty good for a course that had never been offered before,” he said.

A second course may be in the offing.

“We could change it, somewhat. We also could consider another course,” Wortley said. “I am one of the people who believes this is an upcoming field.”

The flame keepers have an ally, then.


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