Notes on a Train Wreck

On an early Sunday morning after Thanksgiving in 2013, a Metro North commuter train was making its way south, along the Hudson River, towards Grand Central Station. The journey through Westchester County and into the Bronx, is visually spectacular. And at that time of day, at that point in the year, one can only imagine the added contentment of seeing family over a long holiday weekend.

That point in the Bronx, just north of Manhattan, is called Spuyten Duyvil. The origin of the term is Dutch and depending on how it’s pronounced, translates into “Devil’s whirlpool” — which describes the tidal action where the East River meets the Hudson — or “in spite of the Devil” — described in Washington Irving’s “A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.” Either one accurately describes the area for our purposes, because at this point, the tracks make a sharp turn and trains are required to slow down or run the risk of derailment.

On the day in question, the train’s engineer was traveling south at high speed and applied the brakes too late to navigate the turn. What should have been a 30 mph approach was in reality 82 mph. The train derailed, with the first car landing only feet from the waters of the East River. Four passengers were killed, 63 were injured.

Hours later the engineer, William Rockefeller, admitted to “nodding,” or as some have called it, a moment of road hypnosis. The NTSB confirmed that he hadn’t been drinking and hadn’t been using his cell phone. The only thing that I can point to is that he had been on that shift for only a couple weeks, so perhaps his cicadian rhythms were still off.

Like anyone who drives, my heart goes out to Mr. Rockefeller. His life is ruined for something that pretty much anyone who has driven long distances has fought with.

There are numerous devices and systems common to train cabs to ensure that a driver is alert or alive: dead-man’s switches, dead-man’s vigilance devices, the sicherheitsfahrschaltung and so on… But no matter how hard one tries to engineer error out of a situation, it will always be trumped by the astounding ability of humanity to fuck things up.

Since engineers are usually middle-aged members of a sedentary profession, and since people today are generally heavier than previous generations, the possibility exists that the weight of a dead man’s leg would be heavy enough to keep a pedal pushed. And since people process drugs and alcohol differently, the possibility exists of a slightly intoxicated operator accurately responding to all the vigilance protocols and still making a fatal error.

In the days since the crash, there have been calls for additional low-cost systems, like speed-radar based feedback before dangerous situations like the Spuyten Duyvil curve. But the problem with all these is that these systems come from a risk-managed, politically-motivated intention, and not one that branding firms would call “engagement.” One of the more ridiculous, protocols is seen in the New York City Subway system where as train conductors are required to point at a black and white striped board to show that the train has stopped at the correct spot in the station.

Of course, this protocol is a prime target for satire.

The American workplace resonates with the ghosts of Taylorism, Scientific Management, Fordism and Operations Management. These rational theories of increasing worker productivity and efficiency have contemporary descendants, like Six Sigma, which still have a great deal of credibility in the modern workplace. And regardless of the individualistic language heard so often in modern tech/startup culture, it’s easy to find huge workspaces with web developers, UX designers and the like all lined up like livestock in an industrial farm.

Company leadership may have engagement in their words and hearts, but the design of modern work environments and management systems still have assembly line DNA. Combined with ongoing budget pressures… ugh. No wonder the 2011 BlessingWhite Employee Engagement Report indicated that only 31% of employees are actively engaged at work.

There’s a semiotic notion that the intentions of the programmer are seen in the program. And the intentions of the designer are seen in the design. So as governmental, managerial and insurance forces react to the unfortunate derailment at Spuyten Duyvil, my design/brand mind also sees possibility.

I can see how the feedback/control systems — which are decades-old technology with a few contemporary touches — could be designed to both hold engineers accountable for safe practices as well as engage them actively.

Something like Facebook appeals to the ego and gives the user a sense of belonging. So perhaps there could be an individualized and constantly changing gamification aspect to train control which tracks the driver’s skill over time and compares against fellow employees. Gradually, a database would be created which could be used in lowering insurance costs and track compensation.

All it would take is a change of approach starting from a similar point of possibility that design thinking begins. Thinking about the user as a person instead of a variable.