Letters from an old railway official (second series)/Letter 3
THE GENERAL MANAGER ON THE WITNESS STAND.
Chicago, April 22, 1911.
My Dear Boy:—Did it ever occur to you how easily a bright lawyer could tangle up many an able railway official on the witness stand? Nowadays we have to spend more or less valuable time testifying about service, rates, capitalization, valuation, practices, methods, and a score of other things that become of public interest. Whether this is just or unjust, necessary or unnecessary, is beside the question. It is a condition, not a theory, that confronts us. The wise railway man, therefore, so orders his official life that it may endure the scrutiny of both the persecutor and the prosecutor, of both the inquisitor and the investigator, of both the muckraker and the political economist. It sometimes happens, since men are only boys grown tall, that public hearings are accompanied by stage settings for dramatic effect; that trifling inconsistencies are magnified into egregious errors. Let me picture part of such a hearing with a general manager on the stand:
Question: You testified, Mr. General Manager, on the direct examination that your road is well managed and has a highly efficient organization, did you not?
Answer: Yes, sir, we think we have one of the best in the country.
Q. Would you mind telling the able members of this Honorable Commission in just what your superiority consists?
A. Not at all, sir. In the first place, we have a great deal of harmony and work very closely together.
Q. Did you ever know a railway official who did not claim the same thing for that part of the organization over which he presided?
A. (Hesitating.) Well, now that you mention it, I can’t say that I ever did. (Sudden inspiration.) But you know there is a great deal of bluffing in this world.
Q. (Drily.) What style of anti-bluffing device has your company adopted?
A. Of course, you are speaking figuratively. Such a thing isn’t possible. We have a pretty good check in the fine class of men we have developed.
Q. Then, it is a sort of breeding process?
A. Yes, sir, that’s it.
Q. To go a little further, has your company any patents on improving human nature?
A. No, sir, we don’t claim that.
Q. Is it not a fact that your officials and employes are average citizens recruited and developed about like those of other roads?
A. That is hardly a fair way to put it, but I suppose they are.
Q. Why isn’t it fair?
A. Because it leaves out of account the acknowledged efficiency that comes from having men well treated and contented, and better instructed than others. Some farms make more money than others because the old man gets more work out of the boys.
Q. Then your road has officials who can radiate more divine afflatus than others?
A. I didn’t say that. We do the best we know how.
Q. What is organization?
A. Why organization is—let me see—why, organization is the name we use for the men—the people, the forces we hire to run our road. It is hard to give a concise definition. I might ask you what law is.
Q. That’s easy, law is a rule of conduct. Now, tell me, please, who runs the road?
A. Why, the officers run the road, the men do the work.
Q. Did you not just say that you hire men to run the road?
A. I didn’t mean that.
Q. Then in your business you are not very accurate. You say one thing and mean another.
A. No, sir; we may have more sense than you think we have. We spend a lifetime at this business and must learn something about it.
Q. Will you please tell this fair-minded commission just how you run the road, just how you attempt to minister to the needs of the intelligent people of this great commonwealth?
A. Now, sir, it is a pleasure to testify. You are getting away from definitions and technicalities and down to practical facts, where I feel more at home. I will be glad to tell you all about it. In the first place a railway is such a big affair that we divide it into departments.
Q. Excuse me, what is a department?
A. A department is—well I can make it clearer by describing what it does. As I was saying, we divided it into departments, and a department is—well a department is—why, something so different from everything else that we put it off by itself and hold the head of the department responsible for results. We are very particular not to interfere with the details of the departments.
Q. Pardon me, but the present members of this exceptionally able commission, inspired further I may say by the example of our patriotic governor, are accustomed to give profound consideration to these great questions. (Modest pricking up of ears of commission, with determined composite expression bespeaking relentless performance of a dangerous duty.) Please, therefore, tell us what your department does.
A. As I testified on the direct examination mine is the operating department; as general manager I have charge of operation.
Q. What does that include?
A. It includes transportation, and maintenance and new construction. It handles the business the other fellow gets.
Q. Who is the other fellow?
A. The traffic department.
Q. Of another company?
A. Why, no, of our own. It is just another department. It deals with the public, it gets the business, it makes the rates; excuse me—it recommends rates to honorable bodies like this commission.
Q. Then you in the operating department don’t deal with the public?
A. Yes, sir, we do, more and more every year.
Q. Is the traveling freight agent in your department?
A. No, sir, he is in the traffic department.
Q. Then you have no control over him?
A. No, sir, no direct control, but as I said before, we all work very closely together on our road.
Q. It is claimed that there has been discrimination in car distribution in this state, because a traveling freight agent promised more cars to some shippers than the latter were entitled to according to the supply available. How about that?
A. I am unable to say.
Q. Getting back to your narrative, please resume the interesting description of your department.
A. As I was saying, we have several departments, each under a superintendent or other officer. We have a general superintendent, a chief engineer, a superintendent of motive power, a superintendent of transportation, a superintendent of telegraph, a signal engineer, a superintendent of dining cars, and a general storekeeper, all of whom we call general officers in charge of departments.
Q. I thought you said you are the head of the operating department.
A. Yes, sir; that’s right.
Q. I don’t quite understand. You say that there are eight departments in your department?
A. Yes, sir; that is what we call them. It always has been so.
Q. Then when is a department a department?
A. You see these are really not departments; they are just parts of the operating department which is really a department.
Q. Then, why not have definite designations?
A. I don’t know. We have never thought it necessary. We are getting good results and giving good service to the public.
Q. What are results?
A. I am not sure; the longer I live the less certain I am about these things.
Q. I am glad to hear that. This impartial commission has been constituted because some railway officers tried to dictate what was best for this enlightened commonwealth. Now, tell us, please, what you think of the plan the United States government has of making the “bureau” the next unit of organization below the “department”?
A. I have never given government organization much attention. The part of the government that concerns me most is the Interstate Commerce Commission, which seems made up mainly of inspectors.
Q. Have you ever studied the organization of the federal courts, and of the army and the navy?
A. I can hardly say that I have studied their organization, but I have observed them some.
Q. Then you and your road do not give much attention to organization?
A. Perhaps not to theories. We are very practical. I never could see where a railway is like the government. They are very different.
Q. Is not human nature the same in its basic characteristics, whether employed by a railway or the government?
A. I suppose that it is, but many things about a corporation are different.
Q. Is not the government the largest of employing corporations with its citizens as the stockholders?
A. Perhaps so. I would rather go on and tell you something practical about our work.
Q. Pray do so.
A. You see, I am the responsible head, so that I insist upon being consulted about all important matters, and leave only routine affairs to be acted on by my subordinates.
Q. What are important matters, and what are routine affairs?
A. Why, the important things are those that I handle personally, and routine, well, routine is what comes along every day and is so well understood that it does not require my personal attention.
Q. Do you think any three men could agree upon what should be considered routine business?
A. I don’t know. I had never thought of it that way. Many things have to be left to discretion. That is where judgment comes in.
Q. Whose judgment?
A. The judgment of the man handling the matter; in this case, my own.
Q. You have been here all day. Who is handling matters in your absence?
A. My chief clerk.
Q. You did not mention him before. What officer is he?
A. He is not usually counted as an officer, but is considered the personal representative of an officer.
Q. Does he sign your name?
A. Yes, sir; but puts his initials under my name.
Q. Suppose he forgets to put his initials. Could you swear to the signature in court?
A. I don’t know. You understand that is only for routine business.
Q. Does he sign your name to your personal bank check?
A. No, sir; he does not.
Q. Then the company’s business with the citizens of this state receives less careful attention than your own personal affairs?
A. No, sir; the company’s business comes first with me. I am a poor man today.
Q. When you are away your chief clerk has to sign instructions to the general officers in your department?
A. Only routine matters.
Q. Does he receive a higher salary than they?
A. No, sir; a lower.
Q. What determines relative salaries?
A. Qualifications and experience.
Q. Then you have the less qualified and the less experienced man instructing higher officers.
A. It might seem so, but in our case we are very fortunate. My chief clerk is an unusual man, and is very considerate and diplomatic. He knows that I do not stand for inconsiderate requirements of others.
Q. From whom do you receive your instructions?
A. From our president.
Q. Always personally?
A. Not always; his chief clerk is authorized to represent him.
Q. Is his chief clerk as considerate for you as your chief clerk is for your subordinate officers?
A. That is a very delicate question. I would rather not answer unless the commission insists.
(Hearing adjourned for day. General counsel sends cipher telegram to president stating indelicacy of state officials is almost unbearable; that bankers and business men should petition governor to stop destroying credit of railways.)
All of which, my dear boy, is not as bad as it sounds, but, through difficulty of explanation, points the way to desirable improvements in railway administration.
Affectionately, your own,
D. A. D.