"Historically in the US the rail industry was built on a military structure: you did what you were told . But now the culture is changing… it’s much more of a collaborative relationship"
For the latest instalment of 5 Minutes With… SmartRail World has gone stateside to Chicago to speak to Hilary Konczal, the individual responsible for security on the city’s transport operator, Metra. Based on passenger volume, the operator is the third-largest community rail agency in the US, moving close to 300,000 passengers a day across its 11 rail lines and employing around 2,000 people. It’s fair to say, then, Hilary’s role as chief safety and environmental officer is one that carries a lot of responsibility.
In the interview Hilary gives Dave Songer the lowdown on his areas of responsibility at Metra; the event that changed everything in the US 17 years ago, 9/11; the personal development he has undertaken to lower the rate of suicides on Chicago’s network; and why he couldn’t work in anything other than transport.
Dave Songer (DS): You’ve been with Metra for the whole of your career and are now chief of safety and environment there – what’s been your career path?
Hilary Konczal (HK): Well, I started out as a labourer and worked in the maintenance shops doing things such as fuelling locomotives and then moved on to a job as a conductor, which I did for 13 years, and then qualified as a train master. I did that for three years and oversaw the operations on one of our lines, but it was the next job that saw something of a change; after 9/11 a lot of agencies received funding from the government to enforce their infrastructure and I became a security officer, which led to me working with the Department of Transportation (DoT), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security. From there I became the director of safety to now being the chief safety and environmental officer.
A retired police officer was originally hired for the role but because of how they’re trained they were more reactive and not proactive. What was required was someone with a lot of know-how know of our property. Metra covers a very large six-county area so that was the important aspect, so knowing where the facilities are and how they’re constructed is was an important aspect of what the Department of Homeland Security was looking for, because after 9/11 there was a whole new realm of protection – it was a learning experience for everybody.
DS: I imagine things have changed since you began at @Metra – what’s been the most pronounced change?
HK: Historically in the US the rail industry was built on a military structure: you did what you were told to do. You didn’t question you just did it, and that’s what it was like when I started. But now the culture is changing to where we encourage people to speak up and we want to hear their ideas, whatever they may be – it’s much more of a collaborative relationship between management and labour and we work together more than ever to accomplish our goal.
DS: What do you most like about working in transport?
HK: I could never imagine myself doing anything else; it’s something new every day and there’s never a dull moment. The other things is the people. There are a lot of good people in the industry and here at Metra we very much like a family and there’s a great atmosphere. The relationships we have with other agencies is also a big thing for me – sharing experiences with them you realise how different each agencies’ culture is different… I don’t know if I would fit in there but I certainly do here.
DS: What are the main challenge relating to safety and environment at Metra?
HK: Safety in itself is a challenge – reducing the number of incidents regarding passengers and the public will always be. But I find the most challenging aspect is creating a safety culture throughout the organisation, as a lot of long-term employees that came from the old industry – so in building a new culture there’s a lot of opinions, which is especially true with union officials. When I came into the role I have always had a good rapport and relationship with labour unions because if they don’t buy in to what we’re trying to do it could see off a programme before it gets started.
DS: You have done some work in suicide prevention and mental health awareness – what actions/strategies do you use to help in this area?
HK: This is what I’m going to talk about at SafeRail. The situation that we have in the US is quite different to what happens in the UK, as we’re required by the FRA to accept the third-party determination for the manner of death. That means we have to utilise the coroner’s findings, and when they determine that it’s a suicide they want to ensure that it was a suicide. A big thing in the US is that a lot of coroners don’t return suicide verdicts because of insurance or religious reasons relating to the victim, which means that they’re not always forthcoming. I went through all these incidents and I realised that we’ve been reporting suicide incidents as trespassing events. And they weren’t. I believe if you’re going to mitigate a problem, you have to know that the problem actually is. We worked hard to mitigate trespassing on the lines but what we actually had was a lot of cases of suicides.
I attended suicide prevention training hosted by the mental health charity Sertoma Centre. What that taught me was that we needed to train our employees to intervene, which was helped with the Department for Homeland Security campaign ‘See Something, Say Something’. If we just train our staff to look around and be aware of their surroundings and what to look for, maybe that can help. There was pushback at the start, but we began training from 2015 and it’s been a huge success. Whatever people learn there they’re able to use those skills outside of work, potentially with friends and family members and it could help. Since we began the training, we’ve had a lot of employees who’ve interacted with people and got them help as a result of what they learnt.
Last year we saved 51 people. This year we’ve already saved 56. I know that the UK also does similar work in this area – I have a lot of friends that work for Network Rail and we actually speak to each other about this quite often, trading best practice.
DS: That’s fantastic work you’re doing, Hilary, thanks for sharing it with us.
To hear more from Hilary and the work that he and his team at Metra are doing, why not see him talk about it in person at SafeRail. Visit the website for more information on the April 2nd - 3rd 2019 show, taking place in Washington D.C.