Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The 2006 "Rippers" for Best Agency

Yes, it's the second annual "Ripper" Awards! At least, these are the Awards for the Top Five Agencies. These five awards are the more coveted, as opposed to the Five Worst Awards. That group will be selected in the next few days.

Awards are totally arbitrary, based in part on the quality of Construction Documents, relationships with Suppliers and Contractors, quality of Completed Projects, perceived value of their Patrons, and other totally subjective factors. Awards are limited to those agencies operating in the United States.

Four out of five are repeats from last year. Read below for the agency that may have received its one and only "Ripper".

Once again, the list is entirely subjective and is shown in alphabetical order to avoid having to choose a winner versus an also-ran.

Caltrain: Big success story with the Baby Bullets. Can electrification be far behind? Speaking of big, losing Mr. Darrell Maxey will mean big shoes to fill.

Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH): An agency suggested by an anonymous contributor. Rip checked, sure enough, quality people and relationships amidst the clatter of the Big Apple.

Regional Transportation District (Denver RTD): TRex is opening early and under budget. One nit to pick, once the new LRT is open, RTD has developed a fare structure that even confuses the computers!

Southern California Railroad Authority (Metrolink): A success story in the face of auto-loving Southern California. One of the good guys, Mr. Mike McGinley, has retired. Hopefully, the new guy, Mr. Darrell Maxey, will continue Mike's fine record of quality relationships with employees, contractors, and suppliers.

Trinity Railway Express (TRE): Second year in a row for this agency, which continues to upgrade its trackage and right-of-way in an efficient and effective way. Only question: How can they keep their high service standards at those ridiculously low fares?

Bubbling under these Top Five: Once again, Portland Tri-met is close. Their story is good enough that the soon-to-be under construction Portland area commuter rail took advantage of their expertise and record of quality.

Falling out of the Top Five: Utah Transit Authority. There are rumors about less than up-front bidding during material procurement for the Front Runner Project, Utah's commuter rail effort between Ogden and Salt Lake City. Are these rumors true? Time will tell.

Congrats to the five winners! My wish for you, if you are employed by any of the winning Agencies, is that your Board and your Patrons appreciate what you do.

Of course, comments and observations are welcome.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Gunn: "It was like talking to a mannequin."

Read more in a very interesting interview with former Amtrak head David Gunn here.

These kind of interviews are great, very revealing too, but in the case of Norman Mineta, not all that surprising.

And if you are a Bush basher, you'll find more grist for the mill, too.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Retiring Old Heads, Confidence, and Specifications

I spoke the other day with a customer, a man employed by one particular agency. His lament was that several "old heads" were retiring, and the "young guns" hired to replace them were making life difficult. You may insert your preferred description for an unsavory co-worker or boss, something like "a piece of work", "something else", or "unqualified". After the conversation, I began to realize that this is yet another manifestation of the problem that is growing up before our eyes, and quickly becoming the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room.

That problem? There are no well-qualified people to replace the retiring, or soon to retire, old heads who make up the greater portion of our Railroad Engineering expertise. Issues have been reported before here at Rip Track. But a more subtle facet of the problem has not. And that's where the confidence factor comes in.

Let's say you are the new guy coming to work for some particular agency. Once all the welcomes and staff introductions are over, you sit at your desk, awash in the consuming silence of your own thoughts. You realize your worst fears, that you may be forced to decide something. And that something has to do with an urgent matter with which you have absolutely no experience! What to do.

You might ask one of your older, experienced staffers. But who? Who can you trust? Ah, you could ask a consultant. Good idea, but many of you are thinking at this very moment while reading, that there are many, many consultants who have no better clue, either! Never mind, once that path is chosen, you as the new guy are pretty much committed to the consultant's recommendation. Don't believe it? A review of your memory should provide you with your own example. Just look in your mental file marked, "The Expert lives sixty miles down the road".

You might go it on your own. This is where my colleague had issues with his new superior. Reminds me of the chorus of salesmen on the rocking passenger car that made up one of the first scenes of "The Music Man", if they changed their lyrics to say, "Doesn't know the property, doesn't know the property!" The new superior is making decisions and spending money based on his former paradigm, and it won't work in his new one.

The confidence factor, yes. Have you noticed that no one goes around yelling that it will be dark right after the evening meal? Everyone knows that! If you have ever gone to a sports officiating training session, you will recall being told that the more unsure you are of a call, the louder you yell it out. Same thing in the railroad business, the more unsure you are of your decision, the more forceful you yell. Lack of confidence, and lack of knowledge for that matter, soon becomes clear to fellow staff and subordinates. Result? Bad work environment.

How about specifications? Might work, might take too long, too. And where did specifications come from originally, anyway? I mean long ago. When did someone move from knowing exactly what was needed to what had to be written down? I think it might have involved purchasing, either the desire to bid competitively or to obtain identical products. For fun, think of the specifications that General Dodge used for the Union Pacific in the 1860's versus what we have now. Interesting thought.

But specs are only as good as the writer. Inexperienced writer, bad specs. We are right back where we started. Even worse, a set of bad specs enforced by an inexperienced person.

This seemingly hopeless situation can be cut down to size. More on that later.