SYSTEM AND BUSINESS MANAGEMENT

INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY IN RAILROAD LIFE

James O. Fagan May 1 1910
SYSTEM AND BUSINESS MANAGEMENT

INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY IN RAILROAD LIFE

James O. Fagan May 1 1910

LIKE other people, I hold all sorts of opinions, some right, some wrong and some queer, about rules and discipline and the rights of the workers and the public, but, important as some of these topics may be, there is yet, in my opinion, one phase of the situation that overshadows them all. I refer to the personal work and individuality of the employee. So far as all matters relating to safety are concerned this is the ever-present and all-important consideration for every man who is in any way interested in betterment work.

Now the individuality I speak of in railroad life has had a curious history. The tendency in modern industrial life is in the first place to get together and to secure what we desire in this way. And it is a good way. By means of it we secure good pay, good treatment, good conditions and the proper representation of our interests in every conceivable direction.

In the working out of this process in social and industrial affairs the individual surrenders many of his rights and merges them, as it were, in the common good.

But when we come to study the life and duties of an everyday railroad man we enter a peculiar field. So far as the public, the service and the employee himself are concerned, by far the most important feature in this field of work is efficiency of service and what is usually called the safety problem.

Now as I have mentioned already, in social and in many forms of industrial life the worker is frequently called upon to sacrifice personal opinions and interests of all kinds in order to present a solid and united front to opposing combinations and interests that conflict with his own. Very naturally this induces and encourages an almost universal tendency to do things and secure things by collective means and methods and this tendency in many ways takes the mind away from personality and individual methods, in securing results. Putting the case very mildly, I say this tendency in social life to undermine individuality is now lapping over into the railroad business and is to be found in nearly every branch of the service in more or less dangerous form.

I worked for five years at East Deerfield, Mass., as a telegraph operator. This environment at East Deerfield was very interesting. At that time, on the old Fitchburg railroad, what was virtually a one-man power was established in the road and operating departments. This one-man power was by no means a matter of design on the part of the management. As we, the employees, looked at it, this one man, whom we used to call “E.K.,” simply took hold and ran things to suit himself. He was chief engineer to be sure, and on that account something of an autocrat, but later when he became superintendent of the road, not the slightest change could be noticed in his manner or method.

The man himself is well worth our serious contemplation. I understand he came from Marblehead, from good old Yankee stock, a descendant of 3 line of fearless skippers, for which the old town is so famous. I have nothing but praise for the Marblehead type. My object is to show how expansive and full of possibilities is the best of types. To me, personally, this man has always appeared to represent a great social and industrial fact, round which my own individuality has continually circled with ever increasing affinity.

As a matter of fact, “E.K.’s” work and influence extended at one time or another from Troy, N.Y., to Boston, and in all this stretch of railroad, I question if there was any single section that gave him more anxiety than the winding and picturesque strip between Gardner and Greenfield. For two or three years, if I am not mistaken, “E.K.” tramped up and down, directed operations, and you may say, camped in this section. Storm or sunshine it was all the same to him so far as his personal attendance and watchful supervision were concerned. He was a great walker. In bad weather, especially, he seemed to be continually on the move, tramping between stations and visiting spots where, in the construction of the double track there was a constant danger of the washout from beneath and the landslide from above. I have known him to pace up and down, like a sentinel, nearly all night long on the butment of a bridge, watching the rush of the waters through a quivering trestle, while most of his workmen were sound asleep in their bungalows.

Devotion to duty and work of this description, though unknown to the public, was understood and appreciated by employees of every description. And thus, by way of example rather than by rule, a standard of work and behaviour was set up, around which, all unconsciously there gathered a distinct class of worker, inerasably distinguished with the “E.K.” characteristics. These men can be pointed out to you to-day, and no small number of them, in the service of the state and the railroads.

To the ordinary observer, “E.K.” was a taciturn, plodding sort of man, usually standing a little aloof in a contemplative attitude, and his business relations with his men and the outside world were conducted in exclamations and sentences of almost startling brevity.

On a certain occasion I was called to his office at Fitchburg. It was on a Sunday and that meant a visit to his hotel. Watching the course of events and the tact and methods of officials from the side lines, I got it into my head that this personal summons to the hotel was a regular feature of the “E.K.” policy. At any rate, I took notice that the men who were favored in this way required very little watching. I may be wrong in attaching design to these personal interviews, but nevertheless I an positive that a greater number of successful railroad men were inspired and equipped in that little room in the Fitchburg hotel in one year than have been turned out on the same railroad by the more modern methods, in a quarter of a century. The men of today are without doubt just as capable and conscientious' as formerly, but the circulation, both of their faculties inwardly speaking, and 'heir movements outwardly, is different. Their selfassertion is exerted in a narrower sphere, and they lack the industrial freedom of the “E.K.” graduate.

These details seem to me to be necessary in order to present a well-rounded description of the personal element as a factor in railroad management, and in regard to this personality the more important half of the story remains to be told.

In those days we used to think “E. K.” had the discipline problem worked out on a very satisfactory basis. It is true, at times, the autocratic discharge of a man fell like a bolt from a clear sky. But his ideas of the safety problem are foreign to this generation. The lines between right and wrong were drawn from his own judgment, on the spot, rather than from the schedule or the book of rules. When a man knew that his case was sound, an interview with “E.K.” was invariably satisfactory, but when anything unusually careless took place, the man gave “E.K.” and his office a wide berth, and went straight for the paymaster’s office, where his money was waiting for him. By this process, whether we liked it or not, a school was established, and a body of men created on the old Fitchburg, who actually constitute the pick of the service between Troy and Boston to-day. They can still be pointed out as the level-headed element in the different departments. Of the veterans, the engineers of the important express trains, who have kept at it year after year with spotless records, the majority are “E.K.” pupils. Among passenger and freight conductors the proportion is nearly as great, while in the road and engineering departments the survivors can still be counted by the score.

But while I could fill a page with the names of these “E.K.” men who retain such creditable records, a still more interesting story is to be told about his personal following, the men who dragged chains for him, constructed the bridges and took care of the roadbed. Without exaggeration, every one of these men have risen to actual distinction in the service. Of the survivors, one is a state railroad commissioner, two hold other responsible positions in the same bureau ; another is a state engineer for the supervision of railroad crossings ; still another is general manager of the Rock Island Railroad. The superintendent of the Fitchburg division of the Boston & Maine Railroad, as well as two of the assistant superintendents, are also “E.K.” men, while in the road department of the same division, these graduates are to-day in charge of nearly every important position.

Here, as it seems to me, is a kind of industrial census that is well worth considering. We have good enginemen, good conductors and good trainmen, but I wish to add that in all the long term of years since the departure of “E.K.” from the railroad in question, so far as I have been able to find out, not a man has stepped out of the ranks and asserted himself individually in any way. In some way and for various reasons the incentive and the opportunity to spread seems to have departed.

The relation that this state of affairs bears to progress and efficiency of service is at any rate an interesting topic, both for employees and the people.

I have presented this picture of the old-time manager not as an argument in favor of autocratic management, but simply as a study of the value of the personal equation. In other words, I am simply giving an historical sketch. Of course, the manager of to-day is a very different, and, doubtless, some of us will say, a more highly civilized individual. But now let us take a glance at the employee whose industrial progress and well-being is being hindered in this way, in the U. S., you understand. Only a few years ago a young man came into my switch tower at West Cambridge. He wanted a little advice. He had been employed in the yards taking car numbers and he had about made up his mind to enter the train service as a brakeman. He was anxious to hear about the prospects. He was a worker, with plenty of grit and enthusiasm, so I put the case to him in writing in this way: “You can easily get a job as a brakeman,” I wrote to him, “and after that the following is about what will happen to you. You will remain a brakeman for a certain number of years. You will receive good pay and treatment, and your duties, comparatively speaking, will be light. In the course of time you will step into the position of conductor, and again you will find the pay and the duties entirely satisfactory. In all probability this will prove to be a correct outline of your career, and thus the prospect of your becoming a good and useful member of the society is by no means a bad one. Attention to the routine of your work will insure the permanency of your job. Outside of this, if there is anything that you desire or dislike, your committee will attend to it. In this way, without any exertion on your part, you are going to have a fairly good time of it, and you will also have considerable leisure in which to educate and build yourself up in any way you please. Industrially speaking, then, the prospect is not a bad one, but the situation has another side. Does the prospect appeal to you as an individual?

“You will receive little or no encouragement to make yourself any better or more diligent than your fellows. For example, the men who are now ahead of you will remain ahead of you to the end of the chapter, and nothing that you can do will alter the rate of your progress.

“And there is another peculiar feature to be noticed. All sorts of questions concerning loyalty, extra exertion, sense of duty, the interests of the traveling public, and so forth, are becoming more and more questions of general agreement than of individual selection. Industrially speaking, from the collective point of view, great results have been obtained in this way, but you may take my word for it, that the only way to increase your stature as an individual, is through personal effort, and the freest possible development and exercise of your faculties, to which must be added' a certain amount of encouragement from the outside. But if there are no difficulties to be overcome, you may be sure there will be no victories to chronicle.

“Meanwhile you will find this kind of collective industrial bargaining will make inroads on your efficiency. Perhaps you won’t agree with me on this point, but if you watch the trend of affairs on railroads to-day, you will easily perceive that the whole situation is being put up to the vote almost daily on all railroads, and while pay and privileges are being constantly added to, all matters relating to duty, loyalty and personal behavior are being just as consistently defined, materialized and whittled away. In this way new standards of duty and all sorts of limitations on personal effort are being introduced, which are not as good as the old standards, because they are machine-made and artificial. Such being the situation, “ I concluded, “you will do well to think it over and decide upon your plans for yourself.”

This problem relating to the effect of modern methods of work and management on the efficiency of the individual on railroads, is a matter of vital importance to society. The more personal and concrete the illustrations we bring to bear on it the better.

When the switch-tower in which I work was installed, the pay was thirteen dollars a week. It was a twelve-hour job, and besides the lever work there were forty or fifty lamps, both high and low, to be taken care of. We had to clean, oil and adjust a good many switches. There was also a good deal of single track work in those days, which called for considerable train order and message business.

To-day the job pays about eighteen dollars per week. Instead of twelve we work only eight hours per day. Single track at that point is a thing of the past ; all lamp and switch-cleaning has passed into other hands, and the towerman pays undivided attention to his levers and his trains. Step by step nearly every one of these benefits and improvements have been secured by the towermen’s committee, in conference with the manager. We have only a local organization, something like two hundred, and we are not affiliated with the Order of Railroad Telegraphers. The benefits I have described are real, and the methods that were employed to secure them were honest and praiseworthy in every respect. Up to this point then, no fault is to be found either with methods or results. Now these results have been obtained by the organization as a whole working together. But right here, a confession is called for. If the low-wage men in the small towers had declined to join hands with the higher-wage men in the large towers, it is safe to say not a quarter of the benefits I have enumerated could have been secured from the management. So, of course, there is something, in fact, a great deal, due to the low-wage men. So long, then, as they do not secure more than their due, no danger to the service or to the organization is to be anticipated.

The men in the tower service work in shifts, representing, roughly speaking, day, afternoon and night work. The day men have the largest experience, and are the best paid. But manifestly in and out of the organization, the afternoon and the night men combined can outvote the day men, who are in possession of the best jobs, and the most money. Consequently, the towermen as a body, are continually striving to raise the minimum wage, which will eventually put all towermen on a level as regards wages and duties, regardless of experience, length of service or ability, and the movement has the votes behind it. In all branches of the service concessions of this nature are being secured from managers, and the ultimate effect upon the service cannot be obscured.

For example, if the minimum wage of towermen on the Boston & Maine Railroad goes any higher than at present, and that concession is even now being pressed on the management, when a vacancy occurs in a small tower, an experienced man in a larger tower, under his seniority rights, will naturally step down from his difficult position to an easier one, if he can get the same money, and thus the tendency will be for the men with the most experience to gravitate towards the small towers, leaving the important positions to be filled by the new arrivals. In this way, with constantly increasing danger in nearly all branches of the service, there is a tendency towards the “bidding off,” as they call it, of the “snaps,” by the most experienced workers.

However, as conditions of service improve, this majority vote will express itself in more intelligent and conservative terms. In the past this vote has been led and reasonably led, always at the call and ever toward the goal of more money and a shorter working period. With reasonable and greatly improved conditions, the individual in railroad life is bound to assert himself along lines of a higher personality and a wider sympathy, and those who have any knowledge of the character and calibre of the American railroad man, have but little fear for the future or for the outcome.

But the expression and growth of this social conscience is altogether dependent upon the attitude of public opinion. Publicity, and publicity alone, can be depended upon to define and safeguard the interests of the people in these railroad problems. Without popular supervision, however, the conflicting interests of managers and men are bound to introduce into the service all sorts of strange and intolerable situations. I will give an illustration to show how closely at times, these situations and tendencies concern the public convenience and safety.

On Thanksgiving eve last, at a point a few miles out of Boston, a tree fell across the railroad tracks, and blocked all traffic. In the nick of time a policeman discovered the obstruction. The following day the enormous proportions of the tree were described in the newspapers, in fact, it was said to be a log over four feet in diameter. Anyway, the passenger trains immediately began to line up east and west of the tree until probably two thousand passengers were assembled in this way and sat there in the coaches patiently waiting and wondering.

The curious among the trainmen turned up their coat collars,—it was raining,—and ran up the track a short distance. But the enormous obstruction was only too evident, and they were soon under cover again. Meanwhile an hour had passed, and there was no relief from any quarter. Of course, it is the business of section men and wrecking crews to remove enormous obstructions from the railroad tracks. So. in course of time, three or four section men, pretty tired fellows at that, after a hard day’s work shoveling snow and slush, were routed out of their homes between eight and nine in the evening, and hurried to the scene. They carried axes and other tools with them, although emergency axes were to be found in the coaches, but there was no one to think of them or the possibility of their being used. Well, the tired section men cleared the tracks in about fifteen minutes, but the total delay to the trains was a little over two hours, which, as you know, on Thanksgiving eve is precious time. The following day I looked over the ground. I found the stump of the tree twenty feet from the track, measured fourteen inches, while the stick where it crossed the rails was just eight inches in diameter. The branches, of course, gave it a very formidable appearance. The section men informed me that four or five men could easily have dragged the tree to one side, while with axes it was the easiest kind of a job for a few willing hands, that is to say, in fine weather.

The peculiar feature of this illustration is that under modern methods and standards of duty in the United States, the management can do very little about it. Indeed, if you consult the railroad magazines, the Santa Fe Employers’ Magazine, for example, you will at once perceive that a little personal attention or assistance of that kind is looked upon as being outside the understood sphere of duty, in a way unexpected, and therefore meriting special mention and commendation. The following is taken from the December issue of that magazine :

T. S. Hurd, conductor, Amarillo, Tex., ten merit marks, for arranging to flag a train, thus saving serious delay to that train, while his engine was undergoing repairs.

E. P. Carroll, brakeman, Arizona Division, ten merit marks, for discovering a broken brake beam and giving the stop signal, thus probably avoiding a serious accident.

W. Pentlan, engineer, S.F.P. & P., has received a letter of commendation for assistance rendered in removing a tree which had fallen across the telegraph line.

A. W. Snow, operator, Canyoncito, ten, for discovering a broken frog and displaying interest in having it protected and repaired at once.

I have no intention to magnify these incidents, except insofar as it is necessary to show a tendency in railroad life away from a comprehensive and liberal interpretation of a railroad man’s duty to himself and the service. Hidden away in this personal interpretation of duty is the only practical solution to all efficiency and safety problems, and the topic is well worth discussing and thinking over by every serious employee.

In this way, imperfectly it may be, I have tried to describe some of the tendencies and conditions in railroad life so far as my understanding of the situation is concerned. And, look at the situation any way we choose, the conclusion is forced upon us that railroad men as a body are very strong, very capable and altogether well-intentioned. And yet, in spite of these fundamental and praiseworthy features, it is becoming daily more and more apparent that there is still some element lacking to make our safety conditions the best possible under the circumstances.

After a painstaking and, I think, a conscientious, study of the safety problem on railroads in the United States, I confess I have about lost whatever faith I ever possessed in rules, regulations, methods of discipline, as well as in all manner of legislative interference considered as prevention or cure of what should be termed the personal railroad accident. Now, if you will cast your eye over the list of accidents for the past year in Canada or the United States, I think you will be impressed with the fact that this personal accident, by which, of course, I mean the accident for which the employee is personally responsible, is the one uncomfortable and seemingly incomprehensible feature of railroad life.

For the time being, putting on one side all accidents to passengers and destruction of property, I think I am justified in looking upon this personal accident on our railroads as a very distinct form of industrial suicide that has certain well-defined reasons for its existence and that calls for a certain well-defined and understood treatment for its cure.

I am profoundly impressed with the idea that his surroundings and education to-day, his political and industrial affiliations, are developing the tendency to make the average railroad man bigger than his job. At the same time, I am free to admit that apart from the influences of these factors on the safety problems, that is to say, in every other line of his social and industrial progress, I heartily wish more power to the railroad man’s elbows.

What do I mean when I say that only too often we are bigger than our jobs? Let me give you an illustration. A train crew receives orders to run extra from A to B and return. The process is repeated actually hundreds of times and all goes well. The crew I have reference to are thoroughly capable and experienced. Not a green man in the combination. They have such thorough confidence in each other that a motion or a swing of a lantern sets the machinery in motion, and the business is done quickly and accurately. There is no thought of questioning and verifying among men who are accustomed to train work of this kind. One day an order was handed to the conductor to make the usual run from A to B. This time, however, the return was omitted for some reason. The conductor rushed out, gave the all-right motion and off they went. It was such an old song. There was no individual inquiry or scrutiny of the order. So they came back without orders and no end of trouble ensued.

Now, this lack of individual scrutiny is simply a symptom of ingrained overconfidence in oneself and in one’s fellows, and it must, I think, be put down as a feature of our railroad life that calls for earnest attention and the precious lives that have paid tribute to it are simply innumerable.

[Editor's Note.—The foregoing article is the substance of an address delivered by Mr. Fagan, before the Canadian Pacific Railway Safety League in West Toronto recently, an organization which has for its object the safeguarding of human life on the railroad, and is composed of all classes of employees.]