25.2.04

TONIGHT'S RAILROAD READING.

At the top of the stack on the night stand are two works by Richard Saunders, Main Lines, about the renaissance of the freight railroads, and Merging Lines, the 2002 Railroad History Book Award winner (you'll have to step out into the yard to locate it on the site.) Merging Lines devotes a chapter to the collapse of Penn Central, including a passage of some relevance to the academy today. From page 393,
{I}nspectors noted the hundreds of cars moving through [Niagara Falls and Kalamazoo] on illegal "memo" waybills that left no duplicate record in case the car and its paperwork should become separated. They attributed this to lax discipline. An extraordinary number of mistakes and omissions in yard records had been made by untrained or undisciplined personnel. They suggested that even the most rudimentary custodial services -- such as providing toilet paper in the lavatories -- would vastly improve morale.

The way labor saw it, the railroad pleaded poverty but never missed a dividend. Its officers were paid very handsome salaries -- $279,000 for [Penn Central board chairman Stuart] Saunders in 1970, for example (which was indeed very handsome in 1970). Little things -- Saunders's chauffeured limousines and his memberships in fancy Philadelphia clubs -- fueled a sense by labor that no, it was not going to make concessions so that people like that could save face. Saunders ... wanted his merger at any cost. Now he would have to live with it.

This did not excuse labor: its lobbying had resulted in laws requiring excessively large crews in three Penn Central states -- New York, Ohio, and Indiana. But on a railroad where so much work needed to be done, where there were not enough clerks or telephone operators or freight-car repairmen, where over a quarter of the late trains in 1969 were late specifically because of the availability of crews, it was hard to make a case that the railroad collapsed because shortsighted unions forced it to pay workers it did not need.
Now compare a news story from today's Northern Star, featuring the effects of an imbalance between spending and utilization (economists understand simultaneous equations, don't you see) in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Professor Alexander Gelman, director of the School of Theater and Dance, notes, "In another year, year and a half, equipment will fall apart and faculty will be exhausted." Something similar happened to the railroads in the late 1960s: there was simply insufficient money to handle the routine maintenance, and the payloads got heavier and the tracks deteriorated and the trains moved more slowly, if at all. Professor Gelman, again: "Our faculty is very committed. Anyone can weather a storm, but if this sets in long-term, I am sure there will be exodus. Quality people want to work with quality equipment." That's what happened on the railroads, too. There are limits to how long people will put up with nights away from home in shabby hotels, and being subject to duty immediately upon completion of one's rest period, and it doesn't matter how many cute kids wave to you at the crossings or how well your students do, and in the universities everyone understands that the way to get a big boost in your pay is to get an outside offer.

Professor Paul Bauer, director of the School of Music, is beginning to sound like a 1970 era railroad manager.
Bauer said budget cuts are something he has been dealing with for eight of the 10 years he has been at NIU.

"It is a real challenge in some quite serious ways," he said. "We cannot expect to turn the clock back to 1985, but we need to go part way back."
The railroads discovered that in some ways they had to turn the clock back to 1945, replacing some second and third tracks, and replacing some main lines that had been taken out of service. Are any academic administrators sufficiently forward-looking today? Or will the current crop of administrators have to retire, as was the case with the old-line railroad administrators, before there is any change?

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