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'Train geeks' give railroad agency high marks

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On the top three floors of an office building wedged between the railroad tracks and the Southwest Freeway in Washington, a tight-knit staff of lawyers, economists and analysts churns out reviews and decisions in one of the most obscure corners of the federal government.

This year, the Surface Transportation Board has held hearings on coal shippers who ignore rules on coal-dust dispersal and a railroad's request to abandon a freight line in Northern Maine. It has investigated community complaints about the merger of Canada's national railway with a Chicago area railroad.

Pretty dry stuff. Yet the 150 bureaucrats tasked with the economic regulation of U.S. freight railroads came out on top among small federal agencies last week in a survey by the Partnership for Public Service of the Best Places to Work in government.

The self-described crew of train geeks and experts in the arcane field of railroad law gave their office high marks for teamwork (85 percent) and pay (81 percent) and their bosses winning scores for leadership (87 percent). They know it sounds trite, but they describe themselves as a family with parents who are demanding but fair and have pride in what they do, since not a lot of other people understand it.

"It's a little like a friendly small town," said Victoria Rutson, director of the board's environmental shop, which includes an anthropologist who monitors proposed new railroad lines for historically significant sites. "Small can be a real blessing."

Rutson's office at 395 E Street SW, a sleek glass complex that opened across from NASA in 2008, has three picture windows that face the Washington Monument. Most of her colleagues also have offices instead of cubicles, another perk that makes the staff feel valued.

These highly educated regulators, led by a three-member board that adjudicates mergers, new routes and other transactions in the $63 billion freight industry, converse all day on the arcana of grade crossing protections and how mergers will affect shipping rates.

But they also wear Hawaiian shirts to the office on Fridays, share their quirks and hobbies on a five-minute video filmed after they're hired -- for roasting by colleagues later -- and exchange gag gifts during the holidays. They're regulators who are almost never in the news, which they say is good for morale.

Where some government workers seem burdened by a top-down work culture, "we're not hierarchical," said Eric M. Weiss, a speechwriter for the board chairman and agency spokesman. "If a GS-7 retires or the general counsel retires, they get the same sendoff."

Like many federal agencies, the board has no day-care center or subsidy for child care, which may account for low marks in the survey for family-friendly culture and benefits (46 percent). But it does have a small gym, where the staff can shower after biking to work and put in an hour on the treadmill during lunch. About a third of the employees work from home one day a week, and 10 percent take off alternate Fridays, compressing their work into four 10-hour days.

The Surface Transportation Board, with a $29 million budget, is relatively young, having been carved out of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1996 after the railroads were deregulated. Trucking and other industries the ICC had overseen came under the federal Transportation Department, which oversees rail safety and operations.

Today, the STB has jurisdiction over mergers, new construction and expansion, rates, service disputes and other economic decisions in the industry -- and recently added to its portfolio the management of passenger railroads, including Amtrak, that travel over freight tracks.

While the chairman and board members are political appointees, the board is widely viewed as nonpartisan. Since being appointed by President Obama in August 2009, Daniel R. Elliott has pushed for more mediation between disputing parties to avoid costly litigation.

He has made some proceedings public and pledged to communicate news of cases in plainer English. He holds open houses every Thursday afternoon, for any staff member to come by his office. He started a "genius" award for employees who come up with good ideas. The first went to a woman who discovered a software program that enabled the staff to look up board decisions dating to the ICC days.

"For the most part, these are very driven people who are interested in what they do," Elliott said. "They come here for a better lifestyle. You're definitely going to work hard here -- but you're not going to put in 80-hour weeks."

The staff includes former shippers, rail operators, engineers, statisticians and many lawyers who put in 80-hour weeks until they decided on a different path. Weiss calls the level of expertise a "cross between a law firm and a college faculty."

Janie Sheng was a lawyer specializing in transportation law on a partner track at a top Washington firm until she came to the board six months ago. "I was one of the few people who knew what the STB was," she joked. She took a big pay cut but doesn't regret it. With two young children, she has a more predictable schedule and far fewer hours. But she says she's never bored.

"You can't fully know this area of the law until you've gone to the agency that regulates the industry," Sheng said. "The nerdy side of me comes out."

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