The Metro Music Video

Washington D.C. Metro is probably the only public transit system that’s had a music video made for it. Check out the video below.

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Labor Day

The following was written by Rod Sullivan, a Johnson County, Iowa, commissioner.  I am posting it here with his permission:

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*Happy Labor Day!

Happy Labor Day next Monday! I love Labor Day. Every Memorial Day and
Veteran’s Day we set aside time to recall the folks whose service has given
us our freedom. I have long felt we need to treat Labor Day in a similar
fashion.

Please take a moment this Labor Day to remember the people who fought (and
often died) to give us child labor laws, 40 hour weeks, weekends, overtime,
vacations, the minimum wage, sick leave, parental leave, OSHA, employment
nondiscrimination, pensions, Social Security, health insurance, and so much
more.

Do not be fooled! These benefits were not GIVEN to workers by benevolent
corporations! They were earned by workers who sacrificed! It is a shame that
so many average Joes have chosen to support our corporate masters versus
supporting those whose efforts really benefit the masses.

Unions continue to provide the best protection working people can have. I
feel as though I have accomplished some good things as a member of the Board
of Supervisors. One of the accomplishments of which I am most proud is
starting an employee appreciation lunch every year the week of Labor Day.
Johnson County employees deserve much more, but this is one extra
opportunity to say thank you.

Trust me – the average person has nothing to fear from unions. We all
benefit when folks have safe and healthy workplaces. We all benefit when
workers get adequate rest.  [emphasis added]. We all benefit when workers receive good
training. We all benefit when folks earn a living wage and have health
insurance. Unions help improve the quality of life for all of us.

One example of a way in which unions benefit everyone: much is made of the
automobile industry expanding into the southern US. While these are not
union plants, workers still have good wages and benefits. Some see this as
an indictment of unions. It is precisely the opposite.

Do not think for a minute that these companies pay $22 per hour because they
WANT to. They would be much happier to pay $4 per hour. And, when China’s
workforce improves in quality to the point that they can do automotive work,
the companies will move there.

Understand – big companies exists for one reason, and that is to earn a
profit. If the laws allowed slavery, companies would use it. Because it is
cheaper.

So why do they pay $22 in the southern US? Because of the threat of the
United Auto Workers (UAW). If the wages or benefits ever sink too low, UAW
could unionize those workers. The car companies don’t want that, so they pay
the lowest possible acceptable wage.

See? The UAW does not represent the workers at those plants. But they have
driven up the wages and benefits for the workers there all the same.

I am proud to be a member of Local 716 of the American Federation of
Teachers, an affiliate of the Iowa City Federation of Labor. Happy Labor
Day!

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Forced Overtime

The Washington Post recently published a “Doctor Gridlock” column about forced overtime at Metro.
The issue of forced overtime (OT) was one of many things that bothered me while I was an active employee.
WMATA would (and apparently still does) arbitrarily declare an “emergency” in order to be able to force people to work. In addition, they would often ignore the contract completely — with the tacit approval of Local 689 — by decreeing that all employees in certain departments MUST work arbitrary 12 hour shifts. There was no effort to use the OT list, and no use of reverse seniority (as required by the contract) — just a blanket proclamation that everyone had to work.
For President Obama’s Inauguration, the two 12 hour shifts were 0600 (6 am) to 1800 (6 pm) and 1800 to 0600 hours. The evening (PM) shift automatic train control (ATC) personnel were ordered to work the 1800 to 0600 shift, and the AM shift worked 0600 to 1800. Those on midnight shift could choose either shift. For most people on AM shift, 0600 to 1800 probably wasn’t too bad — come in an hour early, avoid traffic, stay 3 hours late, get home in time for dinner and get a good night’s sleep. For most PM shift personnel, being forced to work 1800 to 0600 was horrible — drive in to work at the worst possible time (evening rush hour), stay up all night, and then drive home sleep deprived through morning rush hour traffic.
If this forced OT was absolutely unavoidable that would be one thing, but it clearly was not.
I complained about it ahead of time, and Jackie Jeter (the president of ATU Local 689) signed a “Letter of Understanding” with someone in middle management that said essentially that Metro would only utilize _volunteers_ for the 12 hour shifts. That letter turned out to be worth it’s weight in tunnel dust. It was promptly ignored, without any protest from Local 689.
I refused to work and called in sick. I know a few others who did as well, but most went ahead and worked — presumably because they wanted/needed the OT and/or were afraid of the repercussions from calling in sick.
All management had to do was abide by the letter that they signed and follow the contract — offer 12 hour and/or double shifts to everyone on the OT list and then, if they _truly_ needed more people, utilize reverse seniority. Instead, they chose to make up their own rules and Local 689 let them get away with it.
Both the union and management should be forced to follow the contract. They already ‘interpret’ many sections of it however they want to, when it suits them. No good can come from allowing them even more leeway.
It is important for (most) people to have a regular schedule and get a reasonable amount of sleep every night. Metro’s own Safety dept has said that sleep deprivation is a serious problem. It is bad enough that Metro employees can potentially have their reporting location, shift, and/or days off change every 6 months (“Live and work in MD? Too bad, you’ve been bumped to Alexandria. Hit the road!”). For management to have the ability to arbitrarily assign workers to different shifts whenever they declare a bogus “emergency” is unacceptable and potentially unsafe.
What constitutes an emergency must be more strictly defined. To me, an emergency is an event that could not be foreseen — NOT scheduled events like the 4th of July, presidential Inaugurations, concerts, ball games, protest marches, or a storm that was forecast days in advance, etc. For purposes of the ‘Agreement’ (contract) between Local 689 and WMATA, an emergency might be defined as, “Any unforeseen event that negatively affects the safe & efficient operation of the Metrorail system.” Examples might be:
1) Derailments — either Metro rail car(s) or CSX.
2) A vehicle or debris on the tracks.
3) Fire.
4) Explosion.
5) Tunnel or station ceiling collapse.
6) Power failure.
7) Hazmat spill.
Even an equipment failure might even be described as an emergency, depending on the circumstances. I would agree that there are situations where it would be reasonable for OCC/MOC (Central or Maintenance Control) to request that personnel remain on site until the next shift arrives — but every effort should be made to get the relief personnel there ASAP.
A scheduled event does not fit any reasonable definition of the word ’emergency’.
Posted in Management Follies | Tagged | 4 Comments

Broken Rail

One of the most common problems automatic train control (ATC) techs face is a ‘down track circuit(s)’.  That is, a track circuit that is showing false occupancy — it looks like there is a train in that section of track when there is not.  That is due to the (usually) fail-safe design of the system.  Any failure — loss of power; a broken rail clamp; a bad connection; a faulty circuit board; cracked/broken rail; defective impedance bond; etc, will cause the track relay to drop and indicate that there is a train in the associated circuit (i.e. section of track).

Until recently at least, train movement took priority.  If there was a down track circuit during rush hour, Central Control (OCC) generally would not let us go wayside (onto the tracks) to investigate.  They were even more reluctant to do so after some employees were killed and new safety rules were implemented.  The rules stated that generally ATC techs must install slow (15 mph) speed restrictions before going wayside.  OCC knew that would delay trains even more than the down track circuit so they generally denied us permission to work during rush hour — even though if there was a quick fix (like replacing a broken clamp) delays would be minimized.

One day, there was a down track circuit on the outbound track (track #2) just north of the tunnel between White Flint (A12) and Twinbrook (A13).  My coworkers requested that Central give them permission to go wayside and OCC refused to do so until after rush hour.  When they finally were allowed to go check the wayside equipment they found a broken rail!  There was about a 2″ gap at the break and trains full of passengers had been running over it for hours!

That is just one example of what the attitude used to be, and still is to a certain extent.

I recall switch problems that could have been resolved by replacing a fuse but OCC refused to give us even one minute to locate the bad fuse and replace it.  Instead, their knee-jerk reaction was to have us go wayside and ‘block’ the track switches (literally putting a block of wood into the switch to prevent it from throwing).  As a result, thousands of passengers were unnecessarily delayed until after rush hour when we would be allowed to resolve the problem.

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Metro’s Hiring Practices

Over at Greater Greater Washington (GGW) there is an interesting piece by David Alpert titled, “To really FixWMATA or Unsuck DC Metro, get involved”.  It has attracted a lot of attention and generated many comments.
I just posted a comment that I spent a significant amount of time on and I thought it would make a good blog entry.  It is in reply to a comment about the competency of Metro employees:
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In Automatic Train Control (ATC) it did often appear as though new technicians were hired for the wrong reasons. Instead of ‘picking names from a phone book’ though, it seemed that there was pressure to hire recent immigrants.
I know, the red flags and alarms are going off right about now. It is not possible to prove that one is not a screaming racist/xenophobe in an online comment so I won’t try, except to say — trust me!
Seriously, I can at least tolerate most types of people but I can’t stand racists. The world would be a better place if they weren’t in it. Same with xenophobes. Some of the best ATC techs were recent immigrants. I enjoyed the diversity that we had in our dept. It’s interesting to talk with people from other countries. I don’t give a rat’s ass where a person is from, what religion they practice, or what shade their skin is.
That said, they must be a) competent and b) able to read, write, and speak English fluently. That was not always the case, not in ATC anyway.
I like to think I’m pretty good at understanding people who have a strong accent and/or speak broken English but even so, it was difficult to understand some of the new hires when speaking face to face, let alone on the phone or the radio. In a job where people’s lives are at stake (employees’ and passengers’) it is _imperative_ that employees be able to communicate clearly.
A less common problem (but a problem nonetheless) was that some new hires (whether they were 8th generation Americans or recent immigrants) were incompetent.
In some cases, the employee had both problems — lack of basic English skills and a shocking lack of knowledge/ability.
Many of my coworkers and I could only assume that there must be some incentive for Metro to hire certain people. After all, in this economy you’d think that Metro would have plenty of applicants to choose from. To be fair, I did hear from a former coworker/ATC supervisor that ATC was having a tough time attracting qualified applicants. He had been designated the unofficial recruiter and was traveling to tech schools and job fairs within a 100 to 150 mile radius of D.C. and told me that technicians were still in high demand and that recent graduates were simply getting better offers elsewhere and/or wanted to stay close to home, rather than deal with the drawbacks of living in the D.C. area — insane traffic and epic commutes; high crime rate; inflated cost of rent/real estate; generally unfriendly people, etc. On top of that are the drawbacks of being an ATC technician, which I wrote about on my blog.
In that post I mention two or three factors — shift work; shift/reporting location/days off potentially changing every 6 months; and the inherent danger of the job. I didn’t really touch on the working conditions which can be horrible — outside in the heat and cold, filthy tunnels with unknown fluids dripping on you — walking through muck and mud, the ever-present danger of trains and the third rail, train control rooms (TCRs) saturated with tunnel dust, a constant, loud 60 cycle hum in most TCRs; being forced to work holidays, etc, etc. So…even if the ATC ‘recruiter’ can convince someone apply and they get hired, they often quit after a few days or a week.
The above might explain why Metro is forced to hire some less-than-competent techs but it does not explain why a disproportionate number of new hires are recent immigrants with English as a second language.
At the very least, if Metro wants to hire people who have poor English skills, they should require them to attend English classes 8 or more hours per day, 5 or more days per week. They could even pay them to go to class. Once they can pass written and verbal English proficiency exams, then they could be placed in a “Helper” position (the entry level position, equivalent to an apprentice in the trades).
Once again, I don’t care where someone is from. This comment is not intended to be any sort of immigrant bashing and I truly hope it is not taken that way. I’m merely pointing out what most people in ATC (and presumably other departments) are concerned about and talk about in private.
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Posted in Management Follies | 4 Comments

Shoe Mobile!

Metro did occasionally do some nice things for employees, without being forced to.

One was the “Shoe Mobile”.  For about 3 years, Metro provided $100 vouchers for employees to purchase work shoes or boots.  The first year there was just one mfr.  The rep drove a large straight truck filled with shoes and went to various locations around the system.  Employees could try on different shoes and order any that complied with the Safety dept. requirements for their dept.  In subsequent years, there were several mfrs represented which gave us a better selection and created some competition.

Unfortunately, the Shoe Mobile program ended abruptly with no explanation.

Another nice gesture was issuing every employee — at least those in automatic train control (ATC) — insulated orange coveralls.  They made working outside for hours in sub-zero wind chill tolerable.

 

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Sleepy

“Sleepy” was our nickname for a guy who was on Midnight shift at Shady Grove Yard (A99).

You could hear sleepy approach before you ever saw him.  He was so tired he couldn’t lift his feet to walk.  He would enter the train control room (TCR) shortly before the end of the PM shift wearing sandals or slippers and sort of shuffle across the floor — ‘schuff – schuff – schuff’.

Often, Sleepy would crash out before we left.  He could sleep anywhere, in any position.  Sometimes he would lay his head on the cold steel rack base.  Other times he would fall asleep standing up.

One night, someone came running into the TCR saying that there had been an accident outside — a train had hit a car.

The crash occurred at the grade crossing shown in the first photo in this post.

Apparently Sleepy and a train operator each thought the other would stop at the crossing and neither one did — although trains are supposed to stop prior to all grade crossings and there are stop signs for vehicles.

Sleepy’s personal vehicle had been hit and pushed about 80 feet northwest (to the right in the photo).  It was caved in on one side and came to rest very close to the third rail.

Luckily, no one was hurt.  I’m not sure which insurance company paid — Metro’s or Sleepy’s.

Midnight shift was (and is) very hard on a lot of people.  Sleep deprivation was something that the Safety dept. would periodically play lip service to but nothing was ever done about it.  Metro continues to allow employees to work 16 hour double shifts, day after day, with no limit.

Posted in Safety Incidents | Tagged | 2 Comments