Three Tales from Amtrak

In the early 2000s, I worked for a year as an IT contractor at Amtrak’s headquarters in Washington DC. My experience there showed one of America’s greatest problems, as well as its solution.

The U.S. federal government created Amtrak in 1971 to consolidate private railroad companies that were failing because of mismanagement and competition from airlines. The “Am” was short for “America,” since it was 1971 and that kind of thing wasn’t yet considered hate speech.

So what did I learn at Amtrak?

First, it was an American company, so almost the entire IT staff was from India.

I was one of only three Americans in the department: two contractors and one Amtrak employee. For contractors, the Holy Grail was to be hired as an Amtrak employee. It made you almost fireproof and, if you made it to retirement, you were entitled both to Amtrak’s generous defined-benefit pension plan and to Social Security payments.

The Indian staff members were fine, though I did wonder why an American company had an IT staff almost entirely from India. The answer, of course, is that importing H1-B workers as indentured labor is cheaper than hiring unemployed Americans.

Second, I recall three experiences that might lead one to question the unalloyed benefits of so-called “diversity.”

I hasten to add that there are no bad guys in this story. It just shows the extra problems that you get by shoving together people of different cultures, languages, and expectations:

  • One project manager kept using the word “jeddo.” Eventually, I figured out that he meant “zero.” But his accent was so thick and his English so marginal that it was always hard to understand him.
  • We Americans nod our heads vertically to mean “yes” and shake them horizontally to mean “no.” The Indians did it the opposite way, nodding for “no” and shaking for “yes.” That also took a while to figure out.
  • In one meeting, I said that someone “was preaching to the choir.” That’s an American idiom, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when nobody understood it. I explained it.

Just for completeness, I’ll mention a problem I had with the other American contractor. She was very intelligent but had an odd quirk that took me a while to discern. If she was talking, she assumed that whatever was coming out of her mouth matched what she was thinking at the moment. It often didn’t. On weekends, she and I did part-time teaching to help college students improve their GRE scores, so I got to know her fairly well.

My year in Amtrak’s IT department was almost an ideal case for “diversity” enthusiasts. All of my co-workers were competent, they were all nice, and we all took our jobs seriously. But even under those conditions, diversity caused problems that would not have occurred with a more homogeneous staff.

And those are only three problems that I personally witnessed. If you multiply that by hundreds of millions, it shows the economic drag from people who can’t understand each other. In this case, we’re not even counting the cost of hiring unqualified or less-qualified people simply because they check the right boxes dictated by our state religion.

In essence, the problem’s solution is what Martin Luther King advocated: Judge people on their merits, not on the basis of irrelevant characteristics.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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2 Responses to Three Tales from Amtrak

  1. J P says:

    This reminds me of something I either heard or read recently from Thomas Sowell, a brilliant economist who is now into his 90s. It was something like this: Diversity is not our greatest strength. Our greatest strength is that we have overcome our diversity so successfully.


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