Running a Model Railroad
"Do you really run a railroad?" Colby asked Deborah Wathen Finn '74. Before she could answer, the superintendent of the Raritan Valley Rail Line in New Jersey broke away for a moment, then came back on the phone to explain that one of the engineers just checked in to ask how her grandmother's broken hip was mending. One of the engineers?

"I'm . . . accessible," said Finn, the only woman line superintendent of the seven lines operated by New Jersey Transit, the agency responsible for providing public transportation in the state. "It keeps you aware of what's going on."

A woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, Finn says that a lot of people are watching the way she runs a railroad. Far from trying to derail her, she says, most of them are strong supporters. In the midst of one serious operational issue, an engineer even phoned her at home with his theories.

"I call them my Deep Throat calls," said Finn, who lives in Westfield, N.J., with her husband, Tom, and two children. "People cheering me on, giving advice and insights. They find a way to share information with me. It's part of an interest in my success."

Success means supervising 130 employees to deliver safe, reliable service to about 7,500 daily commuters on 50 trains operating over the 45 miles between Newark and High Bridge. She is responsible for a quality infrastructure--"the rail, ties, signal systems as distinguished from the rolling stock, which is the equipment you ride on"--and for the front-line employees, the conductors and engineers.

Trains move 21 hours a day, seven days a week, Finn says from her office in the Raritan yard, the line's headquarters and equipment service area. She moved up from assistant general manager about a year ago.

"I've improved the facilities, and I've helped employees to value themselves. These are the two things I've done here," said Finn, who began her career in the transportation field in 1977, fresh from a political science M.A. at Northern Illinois University. Her work during the 1980s with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in policy setting and public affairs led progressively to management.

As superintendent of the Raritan line, Finn says she has worked toward an employee-based team approach to management. She cites a meeting at which rail workers complained that their safety vests were snagging on equipment. She proposed new apparel to her boss, then to the general manager of the railroad. Out of this came new flame-orange jackets for the crews.

"You've got to start by valuing your employees," said Finn, who in 1982-83 was national president of Women's Transportation Seminar, a group of transportation industry professionals networking to affirm women's roles in management in the transportation industry. "My front-line employees come to me. They feel they can take a risk. I think I see them taking more initiative, making their own judgments--they know they'll be supported. I see an increase in suggestions. And I don't get crackpot ideas. When you treat them well, they'll do it."

Finn says her Colby government major and concentration in international relations, involving images, perceptions and conflict resolution, has been valuable but that she believes a general background in liberal arts has contributed to her management style.

"It was a good foundation that prepared you for a life of learning and wanting to better yourself. I'm never satisfied I've learned enough," she said. She also remembers "a sense that Colby was preparing us to make the world a better place."

The Raritan line recently initiated focus groups to learn how it could improve service to the public. Finn says one suggestion, instead of sitting for two months in a corporate memo, led to a prototype rail car in four months. In the future, she believes, the railroad must close the gap with the automobile in speed or amenities while offering more frequent service and "reliability, reliability, reliability."

"I may be able to alter service in the short and the long term," Finn said. "It's tough to do in an organization with a hierarchy culture, but if you're willing to take risks, you can do it. The real story is `walking the feet,' really doing what you say you should do."

Finn was born in Bangor, Maine, but "lived all over" before she came to Colby, following her mother, Nancy Pratley Wathen '53, and her aunt, Ruth Pratley Madell '63. Her sister is Kimberly Wathen '79.

Finn says she especially values her Colby Jan Plans because of the field work and the future career options they offered but wishes she'd had even more exposure at the College to an environment in which women might learn and feel valued.

"It'd be nice to be at Colby now," she said, where career counseling and leadership opportunities for women have expanded from those available 20 years ago.

"Was that when you didn't know that girls could do everything?" her 9-year-old daughter, Stephanie, asks her. Her answer, she says: "We can take on any challenge."

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