The making of engineers and conductors

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A month ago, in The Agony of Changing Amtrak, I mentioned the frustrations of New Haven-based Amtrak engineer Joe McMahon. Fed up with the incompetence he witnessed around him, by union and management employees alike, he tried to interest Amtrak officers in a more rigorous and OJT-intensive training program for train and engine people. Top management showed some interest, but in meetings with lower-level folks it became apparent to McMahon that he had run up against the Not Invented Here wall. Nothing seemed to happen, in other words. (Amtrak disagrees, by the way, saying that some of McMahon's suggestions are in development.)

I want to go back to this subject. McMahon, a 51-year railroad hand who is now retired, had some specific ideas that deserve to see the light of day. So I asked Joe to expand on his thoughts, and this is what he told me: “Amtrak is rife with inexperience, from top to bottom. Since inheriting the veteran workforce it got in the 1983 takeover of Northeast Corridor operations, it has used hit and miss, trial and error tactics in hiring and training train and engine service employees. That said, I have a template for these vital functions.

“Let’s start with hiring, which is important because these folks will be with the company for many years. There needs to be agility testing: climbing into the cab of a P-40 or P-42 locomotive (it is not easy), getting between cars to hook up air hoses or reattach cables, boarding a passenger car from the roadbed, applying hand brakes and assisting in evacuations. Assistant conductor candidates who are overweight and have limited mobility are not suitable.

,“The vetting process for both engineer and conductor candidates should be strict and intense. Interviewers should be veterans from the operating department and not office personnel who have no experience in or knowledge of operations. We have many folks in other crafts who display commendable work ethics and initiative, yet they are not considered for these jobs. Engineer candidates should be selected from within the ranks of conductors, assistant conductors and mechanical personnel whose attendance record and work history offer insight into their potential, rather than on-board service and clerical employees. OBS and clerical people are better suited to start as assistant conductors.”

To me, the unique idea McMahon puts forth is to involve seasoned engineers and conductors in the training process. As he puts it: “An oversight committee composed of veterans in these crafts can help screen prospective candidates, advise instructors, conduct field testing and evaluate trainees. They are better equipped to assess the acumen for train operations that a candidate possesses than someone from human resources who is inexperienced in operations. “Physical ability: Candidates must be able to pass a physical agility screening. How can they assist in an evacuation if they cannot safely and without assistance evacuate themselves?” McMahon wants more emphasis on on-the-job training.

“Nothing beats real-time situations in all classes of service. You emphasize basic rules at the outset, more instruction midway, and intense instruction at the end of OJT, to be followed by a final examination. All instructions would be tailored to situations on the division for which the candidate is hired. This way there is a mental picture when applying the rules—in other words, no generic rules. The physical characteristics of the railroad are extremely important. Candidates must become intimately familiar with them. Testing would be conducted by veteran engineers with 35 or more years of experience in all classes of service.” I find it interesting that McMahon would not exempt present employees and supervisors from the training process.

“Most of them are victims of Amtrak’s inadequate training program. They would be subject to evaluation and field testing, and if need be, assigned to other duties should they not measure up.” He stresses that present employees should not be fired. “Create a new position for those who cannot attain the standards for participating in train operations, such as ‘ticket taker,’ where the individual would only be involved in collecting revenue and have nothing to do with train operations. They can observe operations and benefit from what might be called paid training. Seniority would be preserved in the craft from which they came, should they pass the required exams and tests at a later time.”

My take on all this is that it seems a bit old-fashioned, which is just fine with me. There are long and proud traditions in the railroad crafts that I fear are endangered as the suits in human relations make the hiring decisions, and on-the-job experience is displaced by locomotive simulators. And the idea of old heads being actively involved in training and passing on their knowledge deserves to be at the center of the training courses on all railroads, not just at Amtrak. I salute Joe McMahon for his ideas and for refusing to give up and shut up. Some way, some day, somebody needs to listen to commonsense talk like this.—Fred W. Frailey

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