Illustration by Kadna Anda
“No Such Thing as ‘Can’t’ in the Romanian Railroads”: On Technological Ruination and Creative Maintenance in the Age of Innovation
At the end of a frustrating work duty, I asked Iosif, the foreman of a Romanian rail repair crew, what would have happened had his team not managed to mend the broken suspension of a cargo wagon. A routine task, replacing the part had turned into a taxing six-hour long toil: the workers had to use scavenged parts, makeshift tools and improvised fixes that one does not learn from any technical handbook. “There’s no such thing as ‘can’t’ in the Romanian Railroads!” he replied. His answer, equally fatalistic and boastful, eloquently captured the plight of state-run rails in Romania, and, more broadly, the ruin of public infrastructures in late capitalism writ large, as well as their resilience. Chronic underinvestment means that aging technologies break more frequently and pose greater risks to cargo, human life, and the environment. Under such circumstances, maintenance and repair work is both more important than ever and more difficult to undertake successfully, as understaffed repair crews fight decay with subpar parts and equipment. While their work conditions may be described at best as precarious, Romanian railroaders like Ioji take pride in the social value of their work, their responsibility to the general public, and their improvisational skills. To understand the politics of ruination and repair in late capitalism social scientists must pay close attention to the processes that underpin technological degradation and precarious work as well as to the practical and ethical struggles of the workers who are forced to make do with whatever resources might be available. This is a story of creative maintenance in an age of relentless destruction.
Adrian Deoancă is a researcher at the Francisc Rainer Institute of Anthropology of the Romanian Academy and teaches social theory at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest. Adrian earned his doctorate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, U.S.A.) with a dissertation about the dynamics of brokenness and repair along Romanian public railroads.
Kadna Anda is an illustrator currently based in Bucharest, Romania. With a background in illustration and advertising, she graduated with an MA in Graphic Communication Design from Central Saint Martins, UAL. Her work often reflects and questions her culture and identity as a young Romanian woman influenced by the digital globalization.
Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.
Late capitalism suffers from a fetishistic fixation on innovation: in these days, new technologies are called upon to solve everything from the deepening social inequalities to the impending planetary doom. The glossiness of techno-optimistic phantasms obscures that late capitalism is disastrous at keeping older technologies alive and functioning. That is despite the fact that mending things is more environmentally friendly than discarding them in favor of perpetually newer gadgets.
This glorification of innovation qua creative destruction—embodied by individual disruptors the likes of Elon Musk or Steve Jobs—comes at the expense of existing technologies and infrastructures, which often get scrapped or outsourced whenever states, cities or companies tighten the belt. Yet, despite the comparative lack of glamour, the seemingly mundane work of the technicians who struggle to fend off the material erosion of the vital infrastructures of modern life has a tremendous social and environmental value that often goes ignored. The following story brings under the spotlight the members of a railroad repair crew in Romania, who are constrained by decaying machines, poor equipment, and a dwindling workforce to come up with unorthodox makeshift solutions to technical failure. Their efforts provide a fitting example of creative maintenance in a time of relentless destruction.
It was an unusually slow August morning in the wagon repair shop of the train station in Petroșani, a mining town in Southern Transylvania. I would shadow wagon repairmen (Ro, lăcătuși de revizie) employed by IRLU Ltd.—a subsidiary firm of C.F.R. Marfă, the state-owned rail freight carrier in Romania—whenever I visited family during breaks from my regular fieldwork in and around Bucharest back in 2015. At noon, a ring on the landline phone dispelled the pleasant after lunch idleness that had engulfed the shop. It interrupted the light banter, the YouTube video watching, and the cracking of sunflower seeds. At the other end of the line, a dispatcher announced that a neighboring station had erroneously cleared for the road an eighty-ton heavy cargo: one of its suspensions was broken and there was the risk of derailment.
The train was bound to deliver coal to a gigantic thermal power plant, so the men had to make haste. Ioji, the foreman, scavenged a rusty suspension spring from the pile of scrap that towered by some bushes in the shop’s yard. The spare part was designed for a different type of freighter, but after some evaluation the man deemed it “good enough.” Helped by Stelică, the shop dispatcher, Iosif loaded the 120-kilogram heavy used part onto an old two-wheeled cart that the two pulled by hand. Radu, a manual worker, grabbed a shoulder bag containing a handful of wrenches, a suspiciously small hammer for the task at hand, and a sturdy crowbar. Vasile, another worker, picked up a six-foot long iron beam and slung it nonchalantly over his shoulder like a baker carries a bag of flour. Having stumbled upon that beam some time before on a construction site nearby, he had been keeping it around the shop because “it’s good to have it around, you never know when you’ll need it.” I initially shrugged off the strange repurposed beam, but its mystery was dispelled later, as the unassuming construction material became a crucial instrument for solving an unexpectedly difficult and exhausting task.
The crew was understaffed. A recent wave of layoffs prompted by the government’s austerity policies in the context of the European debt crisis had left the shop short of two handymen. Any extra muscle power was welcome, so the men asked me to tag along. Vasile cajoled me into making myself useful by handing me two small yet heavy hydraulic jacks to carry. Just as with the iron beam, my extra-body weight was to play a surprising role in the creative fixing of a complex industrial machine. Four veteran skilled workers all over fifty years of age, and a clueless anthropologist in my thirties, marched thus encumbered for a good quarter of an hour, straining to pull the cart over the rugged terrain along the tracks, our heavy panting interrupted only by elaborate curses mumbled each time one of us got stung by a thistle or nettle hidden in the thick weeds and bushes that had overgrown the unkempt rail. Technicians saved the sweetest of words for their former colleagues from C.F.R. Infrastructură, the state-owned rail track company. The latter’s neglect of their duties to clear the tracks had turned our walk into a sluggish and body-taxing off-road adventure.
As soon as we reached the busted wagon sidelined in the middle of nowhere, other problems began piling. First we had to deal with the very instruments that should have helped with the work rather than hinder it. The crank of one of the jacks that I carried and that was meant to hold up the eighty-one tons of coal and steel was dangerously loose. Work could not start before the crank itself was restored. After minutes of head scratching, debating, and scouring the tall grass for something useful, the workers improvised a fix. They jammed the crank with a piece of metal that one of them had found under a freighter abandoned on a neighboring line. Using the head of the steel rail track as an impromptu anvil, Radu first tapered the unassuming piece of recycled metal to make it fit into the small opening in the jack, then hammered it into place. Alas, the tool was still useless, even after such ingenious patching up. Much to the chagrin of the workers, its piston dinted the tubular bar of the undercarriage by which it was supposed to elevate the wagon, making it impossible to lift the wagon sufficiently to work underneath it. Vasile scurried back to the workshop from where he retrieved a banal triangular piece of hard wood, the kind used as a door stopper. The wood was lying around in a corner of the dispatcher’s office, but Vasile quickly identified its potential usefulness. He wedged it between the piston and the bar so as to cushion the dent against further deformation and to gain a few more inches of elevation. With the wagon finally jacked up, the workers quickly loosened the faulty spring from its bolts with wrenches and dislodged with a few hefty blows of the hammer. The job of replacing it promised to be a walk in the park.
It was anything but. Soon a summer storm began pouring down out of nowhere. In the endless process of cutting expenses, the company had not furnished workers with the waterproof coats that would have enabled them to keep on working in the rain. Therefore, the five of us had to crawl under the wagon to take shelter, but only after jacking it back down for fear that the shoddily patched crank might give way under the load and maim us, if not worse. Work resumed nearly half an hour later, but without making significant headway. The replacement spring, already worn, rusty, and imperfectly compatible with the wagon as it was, stubbornly refused to fit into the vacated slot on the wagon. The workers cursed and lamented about not having raincoats, adequate wrenches, solid jacks, a portable crane, and at least a couple of massive sledgehammers that would have made work safer, faster, and easier. Basic equipment for their job that was nonetheless sublimely absent. Although this scarcity of tools, equipment, and parts had been going on for years, workers were still fuming that they had to operate with little more than their bare hands.
Overcoming the technological deficit took a mix of improvisational creativity and plenty of brawn. Vasile’s salvaged iron beam suddenly came in handy at this point. The workers repurposed it as a makeshift lever to lift the heavy spring and push it into position. But even with the combined weight and strength of five men, the part would barely budge. Technicians asked around the station for help. Track repairmen from CFR Infrastructură, who used to be their co-workers before the monolithic public rail company was broken apart in the late 1990s, laughed in their faces. Two men from a rival private cargo company did come out, but only to watch and sneer from the sidelines. To add insult to injury, a passenger train passed by, with passengers clearly entertained by the sight of the bedraggled, struggling workers. Denied of their peers’ solidarity, but now with an unsympathetic audience, the technicians kept on straining and swearing, and straining and swearing some more. It was hard to shun the thought that we were engaged in an absurd Sisyphean task, repeatedly pulling, and pushing, and lifting the darn part only to see the spring fall off over and over and over again.
There was no time for workers to philosophize; somehow, anyhow, the task had to be completed, and as soon as possible for that matter. Bodies, mine included, were pressed into action by the lack of adequate tools. One worker pulled the iron beam-turned-improvised-lever down, wrapping his arms and legs around it to hang on it from below like children do on monkey bars, and asked me and two other workers to balance on top of the beam to push it down with our considerable combined weight. The fifth man guided the slots of the spring toward the slot using nothing but a metal crowbar and his glove-covered hands, while at the same time signaling to the human weight system when to push the part down or to release pressure so as not to crush his fingers. Countless attempts later, the two openings, the one in the spring and the one on the side of the wagon, overlapped just enough for the technician to hastily drive a bolt through both of them and set the spring into position. The bolt entered at a bit of an angle rather than perfectly straight, but since the spring was stable enough, it had to do. Undertaking the whole operation again would have been madness, the workers agreed. If it fit, it fit, and that was it. At the same time, they were also wary that the fix might not hold for long and feared the potential consequences of a failure. “I don’t know if I’ll sleep tonight,” said Stelică, the dispatcher. “I just hope I won’t get a phone call that, God forbid, the train derailed.”
Replacing the spring was supposed to be a routine task. Lupta C.F.R. (Railroaders’ Struggle), the weekly newspaper published by the Romanian railroaders’ trade union during state socialism, described it in these terms back in 1955. In its March 24 issue, the outlet published a photo depicting a crew of four workers huddled around the wheel of a freight wagon as they replaced a shock-absorbing spring, a scene similar to the operation described above. The caption boasted: “The method of repairing wagons without uncoupling them from the train is applied in full measure by repairmen. […] Here they are, in only eight minutes, they managed to replace a defective spring, working within the stoppage time of the train.” But by August 2015, the task had turned from routine task into an eventful, strenuous, and frustrating act of drudgery. There we were, sixty-five years since the publication of that article, twenty-five years after the fall of state-socialism, and eight years into Romania’s EU membership, four seasoned technicians aided by an unskilled and a-technical but advantageously portly ethnographer, toiling away for nearly six hours to complete the same task that had taken less than ten minutes six decades before. The thing is that work conditions had deteriorated severely in the intervening decades. The workers in the old photograph did not face the same precariousness of supplies and equipment, deficit of workforce, and increasingly vulnerable machines that are a daily reality for contemporary Romanian railroaders. Once hailed as “the second army of the country,” the sector comprising the broken-up public rail companies is often dubbed by railroaders as “the Cinderella of the Romanian economy.” By comparing the public rails with Cinderella, workers implicitly describe it as a thing of merit, undeservedly neglected or forced into a wretched or obscure existence. Unlike in the fairytale, there is no triumphant reward after unjust oppression in this story. Rather, it is Cinderella written backwards: a former princess turns into a soiled and wretched thing.
The ridiculousness of their work conditions was not lost on the railroaders with whom I hung out. Despite having been engaged for hours on end in a frustrating task, the workers still had the strength to banter. “What do you think, are we working like the Germans, or what?” Radu, one of the elderly technicians, asked me with a chuckle on our way back to the shop. “Yes, of course, but like the Germans did in 1907,” chimed in Iosif, himself a seasoned repairman, adding to the self-mockery. His mates chuckled approvingly. Iosif’s reference to 1907 was not arbitrary. That year, when hungry peasants mutinied against exploiter landowners, went down in Romania’s history as a moment of extreme poverty and underdevelopment that pushed the downtrodden to desperate violence. Tellingly enough, Iosif associated that moment with their current conditions of precarious work that feels oddly exploitative. For him, it was not only that they hadn’t reached the aspirational Western standards of work, but also that they had experienced involution to an almost pre-modern condition. This jocular exchange between Radu and Iosif encapsulated both their aspirations to working conditions akin to those in an idealized technologically developed West and their sense of backwardness, a feeling of loss and regression.
Lamenting about the erosion of their trade and their degraded and degrading working conditions was not the sole register in which railroaders described their labor. Back in the workshop, I asked the men what would have happened had they not managed to fix the issue with the faulty spring. Iosif looked at me with an expression of amazement that made my question feel embarrassingly silly and naive, even by my usual standards of technical ignorance. The possibility simply seemed to have never occurred to him. Not only was the task absolutely crucial for averting a potential accident, but their bosses would not have allowed them to refuse. Furthermore, their sense of workmanship would have discouraged such inclination to defeatism in the first place. “We’d have brought in more wood, chopped it into wedges and lifted the old junker on stilts. Or whatever else it took, really,” he grinned, an odd mixture of dismay and reserved pride in his voice. “There’s no such thing as ‘can’t’ in the Romanian Railroads, my boy! Here, you need to make do, even if you’re bound to make bricks without straw.” Among railroaders, bitter criticism of material conditions went hand in hand with expressions of self-confidence and moral virtuousness.
The tale of the wayward suspension spring that the four wagon repairmen and their clueless temporary assistant eventually tamed using bricolage, makeshift tools and sheer body power encapsulates materially some of the structural, practical, and ethical dimensions of maintenance and repair labor that I investigate in my ethnographic work on the postsocialist survival of ruined-yet-vital public infrastructures. IRLU Ltd. technicians and their peers from the besieged public rail sector in Romania work for economically impoverished and institutionally disorganized state companies that continue to provide critical mobility services against all odds.
Dwindling investments in technology, equipment, parts and workforce makes such work simultaneously more important, more difficult, and more stressful. Railroad repair crews are called upon to take care of frayed machines, the failure of which may endanger passengers and cargo, and they often have to do it with little more than their bare hands. The creative efforts of technicians like Iosif, Radu, Stelică, and Vasile, working in conditions that jeopardize their health and offend their pride in their work depends overwhelmingly on their bricolage skills and embodied knowledge. While inspiring derision in the eyes of the general public, successful makeshift fixes as those enacted by these Romanian repairmen enables them to present themselves as ethical actors who sacrifice their wellbeing for the sake of providing a relatively safe social service.
The micropolitics of brokenness and of the practical work of repair mobilized by railroaders testify to the material and economic ruination of public infrastructures and to the symbolic degradation of manual work in late capitalism, in Romania and elsewhere. At the same time, the story of the defiant suspension illustrates the bountiful creativity that workers must deploy in response to material erosion. In situations when “there’s no such thing as ‘can’t’,” dodgy improvisations might as well be the only way to make something simply work.