I recently had a job working at a small rail yard. Few people realize how large and heavy trains actually are. We transferred product from railcar to semi trucks every day. The length of an 18 wheeler from bumper to bumper is about the length of your average railcar. A standard railcar can haul about 4 - 4.5 times the amount a semi truck can legally haul. A modern railcar can have a max weight (including the empty weight) of about 286,000 pounds. (about 129.7 metric tons). To give it some perspective, if you were to make those cute holiday model trains that go around the christmas tree perfectly to scale, one of those model train cars would weigh about 3,000 pounds. The typical train engine that would service our yard could push 50 fully loaded cars with ease! Trains are big!
No matter how big trains can be though, it really doesn't take much to get them off course. We had some deep gouges in the asphalt next to one of our lines where a train had derailed. The story was that while the de-railer was in place, the conductor accidentally switched the train to the wrong track. With all the momentum of a heavy train it wasn't quick to stop, even going 5 miles per hour. When the conductor realized his mistake he called for the brakes to be put on, but it was too late. Within seconds, the de-railer lifted the fully loaded railcar off the tracks and sent it loose. The gouges were only about 20 feet long, and there was very little harm done to anything except the conductor (after his boss talked to him)! The thing that amazed me is that the de-railer is portable! I don't just mean that you can move it with a forklift, or car, but that I can pick it up with one hand! It amazed me how a well designed 40 pound piece of metal could derail a train with millions of pounds of momentum and remain useful. It is also incredible that if the conductor had thought ahead he could have removed the de-railer by hand and avoided the whole mess.
The point is this. The de-railer did its job and knocked a moving train off course. Are we as leaders thinking ahead enough to keep those well designed road blocks from knocking our train off course? It doesn't take much, and it starts with the small things. Are we taking our employees for granted? Are we thinking too little of our customers? Are we intentionally switching to the wrong track thinking that we can pull out the de-railer before its too late?
Switching out a rail yard is much more complicated than it looks. There are placements and positions to think about. There are also laws guiding the placement of certain commodities. Being a leader is also more complicated than it looks. There are people and tasks to think about. There are also laws guiding your actions and the actions of your company. Fortunately in both circumstances there are others to help. The conductor always has an engineer at the helm, and a brake-man to assist on the ground. You have plenty of people that will help you too if you place them in the right spots to see the obstacles in the distance and help fix the obstacles in the present. Don't let little things stop you. Slow down, think it through, and THEN build the momentum needed to get the job done right!
by Jim Taggart
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