Tag Archives: Railways

Engineering An Agreement

I have worked in engineering now for well over 10 years. I don’t have any direct certification in a specific engineering discipline, like Civil Engineering (concrete and steel), Electrical Engineering (copper and insulation), Mechanical Engineering (pumps and valves), Software Engineering (code and networks). Because of this, don’t listen to anything I say. Also because of this, check out my incisive outsider commentary!

It’s been railways for me for the majority of that time. Not actual signaling, or rolling stock, but the peripheral stuff like configuration management, data harmonization. You know, all the stuff that gets left to the end when there’s no budget left because all the proper engineers used it up building tangible things.

I want to share with you a theory that has been simmering away for several years now, based on my experiences working on several large-scale projects. It combines mathematics, engineering, politics, psychology and a pinch of not having posted anything for a while.

If you ask a railway engineer how something is currently or historically done on the railway, they will give you two answers:

  • How they think it is done
  • How they think it should be done

This is equivalent to n*2, where n=number of Railway Engineers. There is no guarantee that either of these answers is how it actually is done.

If you get two railway engineers together, and ask them the same question, they will give you SIX answers:

  • How Engineer A thinks it is done
  • How Engineer A thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer B thinks it is done
  • How Engineer B thinks it should be done
  • How the two engineers uneasily compromise that it should be done
  • OPTION X

This is equivalent to (n*2)+2, where n=number of Railway Engineers. Again, there is no guarantee that either of these is how it actually is done, but the probability that one of the answers is correct is rising, along with your blood pressure.

OK, now it gets good. If you get three railway engineers together, and ask them the same question, they will give you TEN answers:

  • How Engineer A thinks it is done
  • How Engineer A thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer B thinks it is done
  • How Engineer B thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer C thinks it is done
  • How Engineer C thinks it should be done
  • How Engineers A and B uneasily compromise that it should be done
  • How Engineers A and C uneasily compromise that it should be done
  • How Engineers B and C uneasily compromise that it should be done
  • OPTION X

This is equivalent to (n*2)+(n!/2!(n-2)!)+1. In fact this also works for two engineers, because n!/2!(n-2)! = 1 where n=2.

Let’s try another, before exploring what is happening here. If you get four railway engineers together, and ask them the same question, they will give you FIFTEEN answers:

  • How Engineer A thinks it is done
  • How Engineer A thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer B thinks it is done
  • How Engineer B thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer C thinks it is done
  • How Engineer C thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer D thinks it is done
  • How Engineer D thinks it should be done
  • How Engineers A and B uneasily compromise that it should be done after lengthy mind-draining squabbling
  • How Engineers A and C uneasily compromise that it should be done, after hefty chunks of reminiscing about the Great Western Line
  • How Engineers A and D uneasily compromise that it should be done after using the phrase, “Agree to disagree”, and then starting again 10 minutes later
  • B and C really went at it. I had to leave the room.
  • B and D managed to agree despite long-standing bitterness over someone pulling rank during a design meeting 7 years ago.
  • C and D went for coffee and came back with something.
  • OPTION X

At this rate, if you got ten engineers in a room (at the same time, on time, which is a feat in itself), you could reasonably expect to get at least 66 answers out of them, as well as a lot of whining and bloodshed.

Hold on – at least? There could be more? I hear you. That’s where the mysterious and terrible OPTION X comes in. There is the danger that more than two railway engineers may agree on how something is done, but as this is not a theoretical mathematics blog, we can safely discount it. But there is the interaction between answers (in a form of semi-aware self-propagation), and the psychological issue of the engineers not actually answering the question you ask them, but rather the one you should have asked, or that they knew you actually wanted to ask, they just knew. But that is an issue for another time, i.e. not my lunchtime.

After all, whats the point? It’ll all be MAGLEV and PRT before you … ha ha ha sorry couldn’t resist.