Changing Rail Culture Won’t be Quick or Easy

Much has been written in the past several months about the lives of railroad locomotive engineers and conductors.

Much of that has come from railroaders themselves and is part of a larger strategy by their unions to gain leverage in the negotiations to amend the contract that governs wages, benefits and work rules of unionized railroad workers.

A common theme has been improving the work-life balance of railroad workers.

One of the most thoughtful commentaries I’ve read was published on the website of Railway Age by Doug Riddel, a retired Amtrak locomotive engineer.

Riddel comes from a railroad family and his essay places the current railroad labor dispute in a historical context. You can read the essay at https://www.railwayage.com/news/not-my-grandfathers-railroad/

I highly recommend this piece because it generally avoids inflammatory rhetoric that brings more heat than light to a contentious matter.

Yet it is significant for what Riddel doesn’t say. First, let’s hear from Doug himself.

“Today’s railroad is not [emphasize in original] my grandfather’s railroad, nor is it the one I once worked for. Today’s railroaders are not the old heads. Quality of life is now front and center in contract negotiations. Like it or not, it is [emphasis in original] the driving issue, and will continue to be. It must be dealt with.”

The work-life balance conundrum has been written about at length by Trains magazine correspondent Bill Stephens and Railway Age Washington correspondent Frank Wilner.

Speakers at transportation conferences have called for changes in the relationship between railroads and their operating employees. Retired CSX CEO James Foote said as much earlier this year.

But one key component is missing from those writings and speeches.

No one has laid out a realistic blueprint for how to create that change nor have they defined what its scope should be or could be.

Instead, they have intimated that workplace changes could be or should be addressed in the current round of negotiations between unions and railroad management over amending their contract.

Maybe it will be addressed in the contract “settlement” but that probably won’t be the case.

It remains to be seen how committed everyone is toward changing what they see as undesirable yet is all they know and have experienced.

Saying that something needs to change is not the same thing as making change.

Maybe those speakers and writers haven’t laid out a blueprint because they don’t have one. I can’t criticize them for that because I don’t have one either.

What I do have is the knowledge that organizational change never comes easy or quickly.

Organizational culture and behavior don’t just happen. They are a response to years of experience, the environment in which the organization operates, and what an organization does for its livelihood.

Railroading by nature is a 24/7/365 endeavor. Freight and passengers move 24 hours a day, seven days a week every day of the year.

If you work as a locomotive engineer or conductor you are guaranteed to being called into work on weekends, holidays and nights with few exceptions.

You are guaranteed that your workplace is largely outdoors and subject to extreme cold, heat, moisture and whatever else Mother Nature has in store on any given day.

You are guaranteed to miss milestone events in the lives of your children, to be away from home a lot, and to spend long hours on the job amid some uncertainty about when or even where your shift will end.

You are not even guaranteed to make it home without having suffered a major injury at work or even to make it home alive.

I’ve heard enough stories from railroaders to also know railroaders are guaranteed to have to contend with prickly middle managers who want you to do something that might cost you your job if things go haywire.

Most if not all organizations like to talk about culture changes, but more often than not those efforts are little more than talk.

Foote talked about achieving a situation in which those who want to earn more money by working would come to work during times when those who would rather be home would be able to do that.

On the surface this sounds like a win-win outcome. But is it realistic?

I won’t say that change in railroad working culture is impossible. I will say it is unlikely to play out on the scale that some are hinting needs to happen.

There is a value to essays and speeches that hammer home the message that there needs to be a better work-life balance for railroaders. The more railroad management hears that message the less it is a foreign idea and, perhaps, the less management will resist change because “this is the way we’ve always done things around here.”

Nonetheless, some of these speeches and essays are raising unrealistic expectations of what might be accomplished whether through negotiations, Congressional action, or management fiat.

Railroaders may win the coveted sick pay they are seeking, but that will only improve their work-life balance so much.

I don’t doubt railroaders have legitimate grievances or that management is exploiting workers to please Wall Street investors which in turn boosts the compensation that CEOs and top railroad executives earn.

Yeah, working on the railroad can be a tough way to make a living. Always has been, always will be. There is only so much that can be changed even if the will or desire to do so is there.

Much of what complicates the lives of railroaders is inherent in the work they do.

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