Freshwater Railway

Organizational Principles

Freshwater Railway is an organization of dedicated people. We've spent significant time and energy to bring this thing to life. To protect our investment, we have established some core principles. With these values at heart, we'll retain the sharpness and the agility needed to be leaders. We have a mission, here – and it's professional, not political.

Of the themes discussed on this page, some overlap with our responses to common myths about transit. If you're interested in what we stand for, you'll want to see how we take those myths to task – check it out.

In no particular order, here's what we're all about:


Well Managed, Not Over-Managed

"Management" is a broad term. It means different things in different contexts, and even then, not everyone defines it the same way. The wide swath of gray area notwithstanding, most can affirm that good management is essential.

We don't just agree – we put good management at the core of our business. We use our resources wisely, we spend our money carefully, we take customer service seriously – and we're always on the prowl for ways to do it all better.

What we don't practice is over-management. In some organizations, the simplest tasks are subject to enormous red tape – formal rules, informal "etiquette", and excessive policies that emphasize process over product. It all breeds a fear of action – after which point the cons of management officially outweigh the pros.

To be sure, we closely observe established guidelines for major matters. But when it comes to our day-to-day work, we don't drown ourselves in memos, we don't have meetings about meetings, and we don't use the org chart as a map of whom we're not allowed to talk to. At all levels, we trust our employees to work together and make smart decisions. Our walls-down internal culture fosters innovation, honesty and happiness in the workplace. That's our definition of good management.


It's in your interest – and in our interest – to provide as many windows as possible into what goes on at Freshwater Railway.

The signature symbol of transparency is our procurement office. It's not tucked away in a closed-to-the-public building. Instead, it's in a glass-encased, wide-open space immediately visible from the atrium of Michigan Central Station. Outside its doors sit status reports of all active bids. The whole process is open for public inspection – no bureaucracy, lawyers or FOIA filings necessary.

Through this website, we make available a treasure trove of documents – check registers, resource usage reports, employment contracts, et cetera. We hope that you'll take a minute with these tools to appreciate the full range of our activities. Whether it's procurement or budgeting or service updates, you're entitled to the details.

So that you can make sense of it all, we conduct free, in-depth tours of our operation. Twice a month, we invite any member of the public to come into our facilities, chat with our employees, and learn what it takes. Freshwater Railway is your system – we're mighty proud of it, and we want you to be proud, too.

We Reach for the Top, We Don't Race to the Bottom

We compensate our employees fairly. They are not underpaid, they are not overpampered – if you wish to judge for yourself, our salary index is available online.

We run an efficient organization – there isn't much room to "game the system" from any angle. Moreover, we've built a culture where no one really wants to exploit loopholes for unearned personal gain. At every level, our employees know that they're all playing for the same team. They understand that honesty and genuine effort, in the long run, pay much higher dividends than scams and selfishness.

Our people make the grade every day. For that reason, we do not indulge broad-stroke, unwarranted bashing of our employees, their work ethic or their compensation. In isolated instances of subpar performance, we swiftly follow up – dismissal is not off the table for repeat offenders. The rest of the time, we pay living wage rather than poverty wage. Freshwater Railway does not partake in races to the bottom. In the grand scheme of things, it is a small price to pay for a talented, dedicated workforce.

Assertive, Not Defensive

We are a high-profile public entity. That sets us up for criticism, whether we deserve it or not.

We're always open to constructive input. Misinformed accusations are another thing. We've seen fellow transit agencies become go-to scapegoats, piñatas for the media, or high-stakes ammunition in low-stakes political battles. In rare instances, this type of pressure can blow the lid off of poor practice. Far more often, though, it snowballs to obscene proportions and casts a shadow on the everyday operating environment.

That's a bad situation for everyone. We work actively to avoid it. Rather than leave anything to doubt, we get out in front of myths and exaggerations. If a challenge arises, we address it. If a question pops up, we answer it. If we make a mistake, we come to terms with it – and change our ways so it doesn't happen again. We do this all to maintain credibility, openness, and, quite simply, a positive image. In an atmosphere of trust and good will, we can deliver the highest quality product.

As for that product, we're aware that not everyone is sold on public transit. We respect the opinion of our detractors, but we don't apologize for what we do. We are a transit system. There is endless value in our service – we have volumes of hard data and compelling anecdotes to prove it.

Diversity Beyond a Buzzword

Countless organizations have adopted "diversity" as a core value – some sincerely, some in a hollow attempt to say the right thing.

In our case, diversity happened naturally. We set out to build an environment where different perspectives and different approaches come together. With so many ideas in the air, the climate is ripe for fusing good concepts, analyzing best options, and formulating real innovations.

Such a wide variety of thinking can only come from a wide variety of people. It strikes us most when talking to potential employees – no single gender, age group or culture has allthe answers. When we involve people from different backgrounds, we're in position to come up with better answers.

Take a walk around any Freshwater Railway facility. You'll hear at least fifteen languages and come across staff from age 20 to age 80. Among our coworkers, we're constantly exposed to the unfamiliar. That stimulates our curiosity, and that causes us to think more critically about our own ideas. Multiply that by every employee, and closedmindedness doesn't stand a chance at our organization.

After a week on the job, few of our staffmembers even see superficial differences. What they do see is an open, inclusive forum where everyone's contributions matter. We all grow and benefit because of it. So does our transit system.

Professional Hiring, Not Political Hiring

Freshwater Railway is a certified Hack-Free Zone. Nowhere in our ranks do we accommodate patronage, nepotism, or safe harbor for political dunces. Like any well-run organization, we hire people for what they know, not whom they know.

Our commitment to professionalism pays off every day. We are able to function with minimal bureaucracy, maximal cooperation, and a true businesslike focus on our product and our customers. We can't promise our employees lunch dates with corporate or political powerbrokers – but we can offer abundant creative outlets, a fulfilling work experience and outstanding career opportunities in a very exciting field.

Because we interact with other governmental agencies, connections certainly can be an asset. In fact, several of our staffmembers do have backgrounds in politics. Before they ever represent us, we immerse them in the rigors and realities of hands-on transit management. It's just one way to ensure that everyone on our team is here for the right reasons.

Whom We Hire

If you apply with us, we're duly interested in your experience and your qualifications. Before we get to any of that, we're most interested in your attitude. Challenges come fast and furious in our line of work – to overcome them, the two best tools are professionalism and good humor.

We'll train you to handle any situation in a professional manner. The humor part, that's up to you. Transit is inherently a "people" job. That's why we conduct every morsel of our business in a friendly, forthcoming way. We'll want to see if that's a good fit for you. Formal credentials are important, but in most situations, your aplomb and your good judgment will prove far more useful than anything on your resume.

If you're coming to interview, bring your stories, your questions and your ideas. Expect a relaxed, person-to-person conversation and don't be afraid to smile or laugh. We're serious about what we do – and we have fun while we do it.

Cautionary Buzzwords

It's hard to imagine the business world before buzzwords. Even we're guilty of using them – we have listed diversity and transparency as two of our core values (although we've explained the meaning behind the buzz...)

In our line of work, two buzz phrases have stolen the spotlight. Public-private partnerships and "government run like a business". According to people who think in slogans, these little isms are supposed to save the public sector from itself.

Both of these concepts have merit. Yes, the private sector and the public sector can partner toward effective ends. Yes, there are many business principles that also apply in government.

What concerns us is flagrant abuse: how people who don't see the whole picture implement bad ideas – and get away with it because their bad idea fits the broad description of a public-private partnership or government run like a business. "Let's sell our best-performing public assets to private owners and worry about everything else later!" – yep, it's a public-private partnership. "Hey! This guy ran a business! Therefore he's automatically a great civic leader!" – passes the government-run-like-a-business test.

There's also the fundamental difference between business and government. Government provides essential services that business needs to function. Not every garbarge pick-up and fire call and jail cell and classroom and bus route can be turned into a profit center. Even if some of them can, it's not necessarily a sound reason to privatize the gains and socialize the costs.

We work extensively with the private sector. We also run our organization efficiently. To us, that's common-sense practice – we don't need buzzwords to rationalize it.

Life-Work Balance

Employees are people, too. Somehow, a huge proportion of employers are only vaguely aware of that.

Fifty years ago, couples married young and most women stayed at home. With a full-time "staff" to handle household tasks, a man neglected little by spending all his daytime hours at work.

This arrangement is hardly universal today. Dual-career households, single parents, and new-to-the-real-world young professionals all contribute to society alongside traditional families. Regardless of your demographic profile, the responsibilities of managing your own life never let up. And that's to speak nothing of hobbies, volunteering, or other extracurriculars that bring you joy.

The workplace has changed, too: technology has immesurably increased output, job descriptions are not cut and dry, and outside-the-box thinking is the single-most coveted asset. A fixed eight-hour day is, in many cases, not the best template in which to maximize performance.

In spite this all, a clear majority of employers have maintained a rigid, inflexible work format. While telecommuting and flex time have made some inroads, survey after survey show that working Americans feel more stressed and less satisfied than ever. These trends have also taken a toll on employers: unhappy employees are not productive employees.

At Freshwater Railway, we rely on the enthusiasm and engagement of our employees. To achieve that, we need to respect their away-from-work obligations. For our administrative staff, we strongly encourage fluid schedules. For our front-line employees, we coordinate mixed-week schedules and we administer an active shift-swap board.

We also offer a range of true part-time positions. Around here, part-time is not codespeak for "second-class". In a world filled with opportunities, we see part-time employment as a great option for people with diversified ambitions.

Consultants: Use Them Wisely

Consultants are an odd lot. There's great consultants, there's phony consultants, there's overpriced consultants. It's definitely worth it to find the good ones – their broad experience can help us tackle complex projects effectively.

When we do bring in consultants, we usually follow a "20 percent" guideline. We'll collaborate with the consultants for the first 10 percent of a project. With them at the table, we'll identify likely challenges, brainstorm effective strategies, and bang out a realistic work plan. The middle 80 percent, we do ourselves. With an understanding of long-term goals and local context, we're in a good position to piece together details. For the final 10 percent of our project, we bring the consultants back to see how we did. Does our plan require tweaking? Are we ready to go? We'll seek a "second opinion" before turning the thing loose.

We avoid a total outsourcing of our thought process. Consultants provide valuable input, but it's ultimately up to us to run our organization. It's much more involved than stringing together disperate consultant reports. We need to have our own understanding of how it works – and how to approach it. Staying close to our own projects allows us to apply our knowledge, to learn new angles, and to achieve goals where we are vested.

Data Informs Decisions, Data Doesn't Make Decisions


What. It's data, duh. Doesn't it totally change the game?

If you don't think so, you have a good reason: there's no context. Pardon this flippant example, but many organizations have inched toward this management model. Data, data and more data, with precious little to give it meaning. Questions like "where" and "how" and "why" and "what else" are fast losing ground to a fanatical pursuit of how much.

Keep in mind, we love data. Of course we do – we're an organization of engineers, schedulers and accountants. We rely on data to inform our decisions.

We don't expect data to make our decisions. Nor do we expect data to drive us. That's our job. We are professionals. As such, we carry ourselves with an awareness of what's happening around us. Data is a great resource to confirm what we already sense. Reading reports and reacting to numbers is only a fraction of a good manager's duties. The rest of it depends heavily on a more complex knowledge set – where, how, why and what else.

We're all for transparency – and we're always careful to explain the data we release. In the wrong hands, data without context is a dangerous weapon. Internally and externally, we use data wisely and we keep its influence in check. To those who still insist on hanging on every stat, we say look a little deeper for a more complete story. And data doesn't tell stories – people tell stories.

Hold New Customers' Hands

Try suggesting transit to an average Southeast Michigander. Even if gas prices are high or parking is a pain, the mere mention of transit will elicit a snide remark – or at least a blank stare. The conclusion is obvious: we don't have a tradition of using transit around here. It's not part of our culture.

Decades ago, lackluster transit was the result of outright opposition. By the turn of the millennium, most opposition softened into a genuine confusion. More and more people showed a desire to try transit; some even dabbled with an occasional bus ride downtown. But transit providers did not respond accordingly – they balked at newcomers' enquiries about "easy" trips, they did not evolve service patterns to meet changing demands, they did not expand customer information in any noticeable way. In the end, after some short-lived spikes in ridership, the market for transit continued to wilt.

At Freshwater Railway, we pounce on opportunities to grow. Better yet, we see the absense of a "transit culture" as a blank canvas. We have a unique chance to meet the latent demand for high-quality transit. Our goal to expand awareness and improve the experience is visible across our organization: our management team uses transit every day, our marketing staff hosts outreach events regularly, clear information is available at every turn, our front-line employees are outgoing and helpful.

We acknowledge that, for most of our audience, transit is new. What's second-nature for a pro may not be so easy for new users. Because of that, we're delighted to walk newcomers through it. We want them to feel informed, comfortable, and confident while traveling with us. Prior attempts to improve transit have taken place solely at the political level. We bring the effort to the commuter level. The results speak for themselves.

Looks Matter

As a commuter, you have a choice. That's why we present our product as any other company would present its product – useful, valuable and attractive.

You'll see it on our vehicles, at our facilities and in our people. We take pride. As it impacts your commute, you can expect a clean, comfortable, friendly experience – every time.

We take our image a notch beyond standard customer service. From trains to buses, uniforms to seat fabric, stationary to schedules, you'll see a consistent, professional identity. Along with a growing community of transit systems, we recognize good design as a strategy to increase ridership, build credibility, raise morale and ensure satisfaction.

When you ride with us, you're not a "passenger". We don't even use that word. Instead, you're a customer. This is your choice, and we do what it takes to earn your repeat business.

Plan Ahead, Don't Plan Behind

Everyone is familiar with the planning priorities of yesteryear: freeways, malls, parking lots, segregated land uses. We don't despise these institutions. We just choose not to build our service around them. We go to car-oriented destinations as appropriate, but they are not the focal points of our system.

Serving low-density areas is an important function of public transit. But it sure isn't easy. High speeds and vast spaces put most destinations out-of-reach of the sidewalk – if there is a sidewalk. In some cases, transit can access an auxiliary door of a mall or office building or hospital, but not without awkward route diversions that slow things down. Many transit systems have addressed this challenge with transit centers. While seemingly beneficial, these unnatural locations ignore a fundamental of free movement: transit itself is not a destination.

Rather than wrestling for recognition in a hostile environment, we concentrate on a different setting entirely – neighborhoods. In fact, public transit and strong neighborhoods have a great mutual relationship. Every transit customer is a pedestrian – more pedestrian activity leads to vitality and safety at the street level. And when transit customers can board in welcoming, human-scale surroundings, elaborate transit centers and time-consuming route barbs are unnecessary. Brilliant.

Southeast Michigan has thumbed its nose at transit for long enough. Now, we are deploying transit as a spark to ignite the potential of our neighborhoods. And vice versa.

Combatting Front-Office Syndrome

The administrative office of a transit system is a strange place. Amid the papers, dry erase boards and coffee mugs, it looks strikingly like any other office.

But transit isn't like any other profession. It's an upbeat, fast-paced undertaking that's an indisputable team effort. We need all of our employees to experience that – even those who don't enter the field as part of their job. If our assigned tasks occasionally become tedious, all it takes is a train or bus ride to inject a quick dose of energy.

On the flipside, we expose our field staff to behind-the-scenes work. They learn about the complex support activities required to make the system run. Upon seeing what goes into it, field staff gain a new-found pride in their role as the "deliverypeople" of an intricately crafted product.

Our internal "exchange program" keeps us fresh. The sessions are largely informal – we encourage participants to ask each other questions, to understand each other's challenges, and to discover how their jobs relate. Sometimes, a different perspective can remind us why we do what we do.

Usable Transit

Transit systems are complex, but they shouldn't be daunting. We're fervent believers in usable transit – where smart service planning, ongoing customer interaction, abundant information and common-sense amenities are every bit as important as safety and reliability. We've devoted a whole page to the topic – please take a look! Usable Transit




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