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Key to Managing Workplace Issues: Communication

Posted on May 11, 2010 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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Restoring safety, security

When a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on in Chatsworth, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2008, it may have not only changed how things would be done by Metrolink agencies but across the entire nation.

The accident occurred when a Metrolink train operated by Connex Railroad LLC ran through a red signal before entering a section of single track where the opposing freight train had been given the right of way by the train dispatcher, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigated the cause of the collision. The NTSB said that Connex's train engineer operating the Metrolink train was at fault for the collision, concluding that he was distracted by text messaging while on duty.

The accident resulted in 25 deaths, more than 135 injuries and was the deadliest accident in Metrolink's history. In its wake, the NTSB made several recommendations to increase safety, beginning with eliminating text messaging, cell phones and other driver distractions.

Two changes that Metrolink implemented in its own quest to become the safest passenger train service in America — installing inward-facing security cameras and using personality assessments to determine qualifications for hiring employees to operate trains — have remained slight sticking points that new CEO John E. Fenton must now tackle.

Last October, Metrolink became the first railroad system in the nation to install inward-facing video cameras in all of its locomotives and lead passenger cars. Metrolink's new lead cab cars will also be equipped with inward-facing video cameras. The cameras record all engineer and other staff activity for forensic and investigative purposes and are designed to serve as a deterrent to the type of unauthorized activities that were revealed at the NTSB's hearing on the Chatsworth collision. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the union representing the Metrolink engineers, have undertaken legal action to remove them, saying the cameras are ineffective and an invasion of privacy.

"We are using them and will continue to use them, because I don't think you can ever err on the side of safety," Fenton says. "It may have seemed controversial at the time, but it will enhance the safety of our trains, and I think they are a great tool."

Literally on his third day on the job when discussing Metrolink's issues he is faced with, Fenton says that he will continue to work with the labor unions to discuss the importance of the cameras in ensuring the safety of the operation.

"I want to reach out to these labor leaders and make sure that they are aware and have some input into the privacy issues, so that they are ­comfortable that we will use the cameras in the right way," he says. "I never doubt any union leadership stance  when they are committed to safety and think everyone sees the value of these cameras. We will work with them." 

Fenton adds that the NTSB, which made the recommendation for inward-facing cameras in its report on the Chatsworth accident, has spent a great deal of time reviewing the privacy issues that have been identified by the engineers and their labor union leaders. He stresses, again, that it is all about safety, especially as Amtrak is set to take over the operations of Metrolink trains on all seven of its lines when Connex's contract ends June 26.

"We are going to follow the NTSB recommendation and the advice of the safety professionals at the California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration," he says. "We are also going to work with Amtrak and their union leaders to ensure that the right protocols are established to enhance safety in the cab and on our trains."

Another issue Fenton was tasked to take on is the use of personality testing for engineers and conductors, which Metrolink required as a result of the Chatsworth accident. In early April, labor leaders from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the United Transportation Union threatened an en masse boycott of the testing. With the testing already required by Amtrak, the union leaders' displeasure set up a potentially major labor-management clash just as Amtrak was set to take the reins.

"We want to ensure that we have the best people, most qualified people that are out there operating our trains, and we want them to engage with us to make sure that we have the right people behind the throttle," Fenton says.

Shortly before press time, it was announced that there was a clarification in procedure of how to apply the hiring qualifications currently in use by Amtrak for all new employees. The clarification states the new hiring procedure that will apply to all Connex employees, who are transitioning to Amtrak employment, will still involve those employees taking personality tests; however, the results of the tests will not be an automatic disqualifier for operating Metrolink trains.

Both Metrolink and Amtrak concur that these particular tests are not definitive indicators of an individual's ability to safely operate trains.

The clarification in procedure also paves the way for Amtrak's use of personality assessments as one of several tools available to evaluate the qualifications of a Connex employee for Amtrak employment. Personality assessment tools will instead be used to provide information for those who may benefit from additional training or development with respect to particular skills.

In general, Fenton agrees that there is much to take on in his new position and hopes to employ open lines of communication in successfully negotiating the present and future workplace issues he faces.

"If we constantly talk about issues that are important to management but we fail to recognize and take into account the issues that are important to the people who operate our service and the people who actually have to make things happen, then the employees don't see the credibility," he says of dealing with issues. "So, it's very important that you address things in a timely way and that you address not only your concerns, but listen to each and every person who has a stake in the safe operation of our service. We are going to be very dedicated to being responsive and committed because there is nothing more important than safety."

 

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