Open main menu

LETTER XVIII.

ORGANIZATION OF THE IDEAL RAILROAD.

Spokane, Wash., August 5, 1911.

My Dear Boy:—Someone has asked me how far up and how far down the principles of the unit system and the chief of staff idea can be applied. It is too bad the answer is so easy. Otherwise we might inaugurate a guessing contest and offer prizes. The unit system is applicable to every phase of modern organization. When its principles are better understood, you will see develop in the great financial centers some such important title as vice-chairman, in order that rank and authority may be conferred superior to that of the presidents of the constituent properties. Both the chairman and the president need a senior vice-chairman and a senior vice-president, respectively, to act as chief of staff. The New York Central once had a senior vice-president, W. C. Brown, and the St. Louis & San Francisco created the same position for Carl Gray. When these two able men became presidents, their former positions were discontinued. Puzzle: Find the reason. Answers to be sent to the Puzzle. Editor, Louis D. Brandeis, Boston, Mass.

A prominent railway executive, who is also a distinguished bridge engineer, said to me, “You must be patient until railway people can measure this big idea in their own little half bushels. I did not see it clearly until I thought it through in terms with which I am familiar. I reverted to my graphic statics and measured organization as a bridge truss. This showed the chief clerk as a short ordinate between the longest, the head of the unit, and next longest, the official second in rank. We would never design a bridge that way, for the short ordinate in between would break under the strain. You interpose the chief of staff and diminish your strains logically to suit the decreased resisting power. Why don’t you show the old telegraph men and the electric people the same idea in terms of things with which they are most familiar? They should see that you can not step down your potential through an undersized transformer.”

Railroad administration is usually said to be divided into four real departments, namely: the executive, including legal and financial, the traffic, the operating, including maintenance and construction, and the accounting. Most railroads place each of these departments in charge of a vice-president. I think that this is usually a mistake. Experience has demonstrated the practicability of the same man being a division master mechanic, for example, and at the same time performing some of the broader duties of an assistant superintendent. Likewise an assistant general manager can act as the head of the mechanical bureau in the general office. When we reach so high as to go beyond the heads of real departments we find our old friend, volume of business, and his bastard brother, unbalanced administration, to demand more balance wheels. The unit has become of too large a size for a single governor. If you don’t believe this, watch somebody try to transfer a bureau, freight claims, for example, from the department under one vice-president to that of another.

When I incorporate and organize that ideal railroad it will have a president, a senior vice-president and as many other vice-presidents as may be necessary. The vice-presidents will be real assistant presidents, not heads of departments. Each will be an expert graduated from some particular department. Such graduation will depend more upon the man being big enough for a vice-president and possible president than upon the department itself. Since volume of business warrants separation of the financial and the corporate from the legal, and of passenger from freight traffic, I shall have seven departments, under seven general officers, namely, the general inspector (who will also be the comptroller), the secretary, the general treasurer, the general manager, the freight traffic manager, the passenger traffic manager, and the general counsel. Each of the seven departments will have its own office file. All of the vice-presidents will have one consolidated office file in common with the president.

Trusting that these few lines will restrain you for a brief period, which is Boston & Albany for hold you for a while, let us consider the application of the unit system to a humbler sphere, that of roadmaster or track supervisor, who is the head of a highly important sub-unit of maintenance organization. The roadmaster’s clerk is usually paid less than a section foreman. As a result such clerk is either a callow youth looking for speedy transfer or an old man married to the job. In the latter case, after one change in roadmasters the clerk probably dominates the office. He puts so much fear of paper work in the minds of the section foreman that few aspire to be roadmasters. Instead of a clerk, why not have an assistant roadmaster, a real understudy, promoted from section foreman at a slight increase in pay and allowances? Get the working atmosphere of the section into the roadmaster’s office. Perhaps some of the section foremen are not relatively as stupid as certain superiors who take snap judgment on possible qualifications. Some people deny the necessity for a roadmaster’s office. Is it not rather difficult to hold a man responsible without giving him access to first hand records of performance? An assistant superintendent or an assistant general manager can and should come to his own headquarters where there are clerks to furnish him necessary information. A roadmaster away from division headquarters cannot gain such contact without deserting the subdivision for which he is responsible night and day. He cannot well take the section foreman from work to compile statistics.

When the word superintendent is eliminated from all higher titles so that it means the head, and a real head, of an operating division, there will be a bigger return for that item of operating expenses known as “superintendence.” If the notion still lingers that operation is merely train movement, and that it is enough for a superintendent to be a high class chief dispatcher, the idea of real management can be driven in by calling the head of a division a “manager” In such case, the title general manager would have a logical meaning. The title district manager would fit the case where subdivision into such territorial units became unavoidable.

When the telegraph, the telephone, and the phonograph were invented the Greek language was consulted and new words were scientifically coined to express a new necessity of linguistic expression. The automobile and the aeroplane are founding whole families of new words. As society and industry become more highly organized it may be necessary to coin new words to convey the full idea of the rank and duties of the human elements in a large organization. Critics of the unit system deplore the uniformity of titles as tending to merge individual identity. This is not the fault of the system but of the poverty of the English language which lacks varying terminations of root words to express different shades of meaning. If necessary to meet this view helps can be sought from such highly inflected languages as Greek and Esperanto, and new words coined. Thus the same word with a slightly different ending would mean, “assistant superintendent in charge of maintenance of way and structures as classified by the Interstate Commerce Commission,” or, “assistant superintendent in charge of maintenance of equipment, including an allowance for depreciation at the legal and constitutional ratio of sixteen to one, expiating the crime of 1873 and glorifying the Hepburn Act of 1906.”

Many practical things in this world escape attention because they are so close as to be inside the focal distance. The persons most concerned are often too close to a proposition to observe what should be distinctly obvious. I uncover my headlight to the fellow down East who recently showed us all that green flags can be replaced by the night markers. For the over-specialization of perishable day indicators he substituted the all-round day and night marker. The supply people should not kick at the decreased demand for their product. They should be thankful, rather, that railroad officials did not wake up sooner to changed conditions. The new practice is worth the price of admission if it only serves to do away with the delay and inconvenience of loading and unloading the time-honored and cumbrous train box which still roams wild in some regions covered by the Spokane rate decision.

Among the other simplifications which time will bring is a logical method of designating extra trains. To-day we tell a man that an engine number means little, because the train indicator says that it is train so-and-so. The numbers on the engine and on the train indicator are different and have no relation. To-morrow the engine runs extra and the two numbers must be identical. When we adopt the train indicator, should we not banish numbers from the outside of our engines and tenders? Should not the number be inside the cab to be consulted for reports and statistics, including the train sheet? This would mean that extras would be numbered consecutively in a series higher than the numbers on the regular trains. Extras, like regular trains, would lose their running rights in twelve hours. In this connection, did you ever figure that, except possibly in the case of extras, the distinctions “A. M.” and “P. M.” are superfluous on train orders? Should P. M. come before the order is fulfilled, the A. M. train is dead.

The proposed change would force regular trains to be numbered in lower series, regardless of divisions and branch lines. This would make for safety. The more figures in a number, the greater the possibilities of error in reading a train order. A man is much more likely to confuse 2347 with 2345 than 47 with 45. If the motive power bureau must recognize the high numbered union for classification purposes, let us avoid having the blooming series federate with the train dispatcher’s order book.

The magnificent distances of this western country are reflected in increased difficulties in railway operation. Perhaps no branch of the railway service is more affected thereby than the dining car service. American travelers, as the colored soldier said about the Cubans, are the “eatin’est lot of people.” The long haul for cars and supplies renders supervision more difficult and deficits correspondingly greater. The dining car man on most, if not all, western roads is attached to a losing game. When poverty comes in at the door, love flies out at the window. The dining car superintendent is kept busy retaining the affections of the management in the face of red figures.

A dining car is about the most complex proposition in its operation that we have on the railroad. It will be the hardest to bring under the supervision of the division superintendent and his assistants. The difficulties of so doing are many, but are not insurmountable. The dining car, because it moves on wheels, is an incident to the manufacture and sale of transportation. It is not, as a few dining car people suppose, merely a traveling hotel to which the railway is an incident. Originally the dining cars were under the passenger traffic department. Later it was realized that they are logically a part of operation. So they have been placed under the general manager and his subordinate, the superintendent of dining cars. We say nonchalantly that the superintendent and the train conductor can instruct the so-called conductor of the dining car. Let a passenger conductor report a dining car conductor. The former’s superintendent will probably find himself helpless to defend his man against the momentum of a correspondence bureau located in the general offices. As a result, the superintendent and the passenger conductor soon lose interest. They are not looking for trouble and possible censure. The outcome is long-range supervision of a centralized activity. The man in charge of the dining car should be called steward, because he cannot conduct a car even to a side track. He should be under the control of the train conductor, whom the superintendent can hold responsible for the entire train performing proper public service. A good, honest passenger conductor can secure and retain more business for the company than two traveling passenger agents. The conductor cannot do this if the dining car man is unwilling to send promptly a pot of coffee to the shabby little sick woman in the chair car whose daughters are going to buy tourist tickets next year. In the days of simpler organization the good old passenger conductor would unload on the prairie a short-sighted sleeping car or dining car man and let the latter walk home. Because this cannot be done to-day is one of the reasons for the lack of initiative on the part of the train conductor. The lack of courtesy sometimes shown by employes is not infrequently the fault of heads of would-be departments whose tenacity for departmental lines leaves subordinates with an unbalanced notion of the necessity for real courtesy and consideration. Bowing and scraping do not alone constitute politeness.

One of the best dining car superintendents in the country is Tom Clifford of the Erie, a graduated division superintendent and passenger conductor. Because they are general officers, the dining car superintendents of the future should be assistant general managers, and should come up from the grade of division superintendent, in order to acquire a more comprehensive knowledge of operation. Just how to work out all the details is, I confess, perhaps the hardest operating problem that I have yet tackled. Pullman employes have a home terminal and a home district to whose superintendent certain reports are made and complaints referred. This works well, although Pullman cars may run over several of their superintendents’ districts. The fact that dining cars run over more than one division is not of itself a sufficient reason for the employes being under the immediate direction of a general officer. Volume of business, density of traffic, shortness of runs, and other causes may warrant varying applications of the underlying principle. Above all, we should avoid those hard and fast rules which even the Medes and Persians never attempted to make applicable to dining cars.

Affectionately, your own,

D. A. D.