Saturday, February 14, 2015

Working on the Railroad

This post is inspired by Guy Miller's reminiscence reprinted (from Counterpunch) in Socialist Viewpoint, entitled Blood on the Tracks. The title is misleading. Despite Mr. Miller's efforts to be angry at capitalists like Warren Buffett, I sense more an overwhelming pride in his profession. This fellow loves the railroads and all they stand for.

I knew Mr. Miller--more an acquaintance than a friend--back in the days when the Chicago branch was at 180 N. Wacker. I vaguely recall a conversation I had with him after he first got a job with the Chicago & Northwestern. I was one of those College Boys who didn't know too much about real work, so he and I didn't have much in common. But I was genuinely curious what railroad guys did all day.

I confess that I underestimated him. I thought his getting a union job was just a political ruse and that eventually he'd get tired of it and go back to college like the rest of us. So I'm pleased to read that he retired 37 years later from the Union Pacific. That actually squares with my impression of him back then. Mr. Miller was a man you could trust.

You don't work for the railroad for 37 years unless you're trustworthy, reliable, and sober. The best thing the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) ever did for me was the drug discipline--its absolute prohibition on using any illegal drugs. No doubt that was true for Mr. Miller as well. Even today, a primary criterion for employment at the Union Pacific is that you be drug-free. How many children of the 60s could meet that standard?

Railroading is not like working in a factory. It's a skilled job that requires close attention. There is little room for error (as the accident at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, illustrates, where 42 people died). Mr. Miller describes it nicely.
You’re given a stack of track bulletins, each one with specific, complicated instructions. Each one of these bulletins can be a question of life and death. In the course of your run you are constantly interacting with dispatchers, train masters, yardmasters, track foremen, control operators, other trains and emergency personnel. Many of these radio conversations require exact wording, and a long ritualized formula: “Engineer on UP7215 East calling foreman Brown in charge of track bulletin 624 issued on September 24, between mile post 281.6 to mile post 285.7, over.” And so on back and forth the exchanges go over and over, with every word repeated exactly.
It's like being an airline pilot.

Or at least it was like being an airline pilot. For as in that profession much of the work is being computerized and automated. Voice radio communication is what we, today, would call low bandwidth. Much more efficient is the high speed, digital communication from computer to computer. Both the track bulletins and the operator's response can be computerized, and you can take humans out of the equation. Just as the military flies drones all over the world piloted from a bunker outside Las Vegas, so the Union Pacific could drive trains from a control room in Omaha.

Mr. Miller recounts how train crews have gradually been shrinking over the years. Firemen got off in the 1960s. Apprentice engineers disappeared with the shift from steam to diesel. Brakemen and helpers left the tracks with the caboose. Today trains are run by two-man crews: an engineer and a conductor.

Recently the union signed a tentative agreement with BNSF to move to one-man crews--just an engineer. The conductor would work from an office off the train. The company added all kinds of bennies to sweeten the pot, buying off the union negotiators. But, as Mr. Miller reports, it wasn't good enough. The union rank & file voted down the deal, so BNSF is stuck with the two-man crews for the moment.

But only for the moment. Automating trains is a compelling project. Most accidents are caused by human error, so taking humans out of the loop will surely improve safety. No longer will one need to worry about misunderstanding static-filled radio lingo, fatigue, or lack of complete information. A computer can track sensors on every wheel every second--no human could do that. Engineers will stay on board for a few more years as a sentimental relic, but soon they, too, will be gone.

Factory jobs are increasingly done by robots. Over-the-road truck drivers will be displaced within a decade. Airline pilots have ever less and less to do (though they're furthest from redundancy). That railroads should be exempt is impossible.

And now the rot spreads into the white collar workforce as well. Us College Boys can't sleep well anymore, either. Computers have eliminated my dad's old profession--travel agent. Human lawyers are increasingly unemployed because of computers. IBM is working hard to displace the doctor. And we professors are finding our jobs increasingly automated.

So Mr. Miller, retired, speaks fondly about the job he did in the past. And his pride is well-placed. He is an honorable man who did an honorable job. And judging from his article he must have done it very well. But the times they are a changing, and the job that Mr. Miller did doesn't need to be done anymore. That's sad, but that's the way it is.

Further Reading:

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