Amtrak, Japan Rail, and the Environment: Changing Systems

December 3, 2018 by Joshua
in Leadership

I saw some Japanese people on an Amtrak train. I wondered what it must feel like to ride decrepit trains running slowly, stopping often, late by hours, and creaking when they’re used to fast trains, where 1 minute late is significant.

I got to thinking how to modernize Amtrak if we wanted. A technological change won’t do it. You can’t just bring their fast trains over and run them at top speed. They won’t, given our tracks, signaling, power systems, and so on. You have to change everything. Changing any one technological part won’t show results. Even changing lots of technological parts won’t make the trains run faster, more on time, more smoothly, etc.amtrak train

Changing the technology is still necessary, but not enough, nor significant for a while.

You have to change procedures, incentives, and so on. I’m not sure all of how you’d do it, but it seems that ultimately you have to change the people—especially their goals and beliefs.

I suspect Japanese train worker culture is nearly opposite America’s. While I interacted with some friendly conductors, I can only imagine the beliefs and goals of Japanese train workers nearly opposite here—doing what’s necessary versus driven to do the best job possible. Avoiding responsibility and accountability versus wanting them.

Changing systems

Then it hit me the parallel with changing human behavior regarding the environment. Most people feel or hope that technological fixes will resolve our problems. I don’t think they could and I think the analogy with bringing first-world technologies to America’s third-world train system illustrates it.

Technical solutions to climate issues are like technical solutions to Amtrak—necessary but insufficient and small in comparison to the system’s beliefs and goals. Change the beliefs and goals and the system will adjust. If you keep them then changing parts of the system won’t change the system.

Current systems

Our current relevant systems’ goals seem to be growth, limiting liability, comfort, and convenience. Making technologies more efficient will only make the system achieve those goals more efficiently, whether new trains, LEDs instead of incandescents, electric cars, or whatever.

Shift culture to goals like enjoying what you have, responsibility for how you affect others, resilience, and relationships and you’ll eventually reach a different goal. Then, also, technological innovation will generally drive the system to the new goals.

An example

For example, before Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, American car engineers worked hard to produce cars that were faster, bigger, and covered with more chrome. After the book, the same people worked hard to produce cars that were safer, more reliable, and got more miles.

Same people, different results, same level of technological advancement.

Lesson

My big take-away is to change humans’ environmental path to focus more on identifying, understanding, and influencing people’s beliefs. I concluded so a long time ago, but the Amtrak model helped illustrate it.

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