R&D boss faces staff transition

R&D boss faces staff transition

Steve Ditmeyer sees similarities between his work and conducting a symphony.

Steven R. Ditmeyer compares his job as director of the Research and Development Office at the Federal Railroad Administration with that of a symphony conductor.

'Just like in a symphony, I make sure the organization is in place and is producing the results,' he said.

The office addresses railroad safety from a variety of angles, including human factors, rolling stock, track, track-train interaction, train control, grade crossings and hazardous materials.

As the director, a position Ditmeyer has held for the last six years, he supervises 13 R&D program managers.

'My job is to ensure that we have good program managers in place, that they have all the tools that they need to use for doing their jobs and to make sure they get the training they need,' he said.

A major challenge is preparing for the eventual attrition of an aging work force. 'Two-thirds of our staff are going to be eligible to retire either now or within five years,' Ditmeyer said. 'We have a slightly higher average age than the rest of the agency.'

The office is making arrangements for what Ditmeyer calls a 'transfer of knowledge' from the people who retire to the people who take up their positions.

'Normally, someone has to leave a job before the job gets advertised and the successor gets picked. There's always a gap,' he said. 'We are trying to bring forward the idea that there has to be some overlap, whether that involves changes in policies, procedures and planning activity.'

Make a plan

The office has hired a consultant through the Office of Personnel Management to devise a plan that will help FRA identify its needs and change its policies and procedures.

Ditmeyer noted that recruiting workers is not a problem; for the last several years, the railroad industry has been cutting down on research. 'For those interested in railroads and railroad research, we are becoming one of the few possibilities to do that,' he said. 'But the question is, are we going to continue to attract those people or are they going to say there's nothing out there.'

While the availability of former railroad workers eases Ditmeyer's recruitment problems, his office has been affected by the shrinking of the federal work force.

'We have 15 percent of the staff that we had in 1980, and in constant dollars, we have about one-fourth of the money we had,' Ditmeyer said.

Like other agencies, FRA faces the problem of having to submit one-year budgets, he said.

'We request a budget before we know what we are getting the preceding year,' Ditmeyer said. 'We are forced to do a five-year plan, and it's all out of sequence. Our 2003 budget was written a few months ago, but we won't know what we will get in 2002 until about two months from now.'

Another challenge Ditmeyer faces is revamping the office's R&D program.

Some aspects of rail transportation have remained intact for decades, so the R&D office has had to find ways to incorporate new ideas and devices into them.

'There was no or very little knowledge in-house on electronics, sensors and computers,' he said. 'The challenge has been not to do radical change to the program; we still work in rolling stock, tracks, grade crossings. But it's been to introduce new technologies into our work. In our five-year plan now, every chapter talks about the new technologies.'

The R&D office has been working with the railroad industry to develop intelligent railroad systems, which will introduce new sensors and computer and digital communications into train controls, braking systems, grade crossings and defect detection.

'If our budget requests work properly, we plan to have freight cars equipped with sensors and electronic brakes,' he said.

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