CSX Shares Virtual Training Simulation Success

Written by Andrew Corselli
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Joe Branson, CSX Senior Director of Operations Training.

CSX was recently interviewed about its dive into the virtual training simulation world with interactive training provider Heartwood. The goal of the interview was to explore the opportunities and challenges the company faced while adopting this new technology, and to share their industry outlook around it.

Joe Branson, CSX Senior Director of Operations Training, was the subject matter expert and project lead. See the questions and his responses below.

Q: What made you look into Virtual Training Simulations? What pain points were you alleviating?

JB: At CSX, we knew that technology could be used to enhance learning and provide greater proficiency with certain tasks. However, the key was identifying the right technology to best meet our needs.

With this in mind, we decided to explore the world of virtual simulation technology. Our goal was to recreate a common railroad scenario as it may occur in the real world with freight car equipment. We chose a scenario involving air brake testing (49 CFR Part 232); we wanted an application that would more consistently evaluate and accurately reflect the skill set and knowledge of each employee.

We wanted something that would ultimately provide an even better training product by reducing the number of manual requirements and responsibilities that our field managers were tasked with, while strengthening our training efforts by providing a new and innovative way to learn.

Q: Speaking to the skillset in question, could you briefly talk about satisfying railroad regulations—and FRA waivers for these simulations?

JB: Federal regulation requires railroads to provide initial training of the air brake systems to certain employees and their supervisors. After this initial training, those same employees must receive a recertification course every three years, which includes a hands-on demonstration of an employee’s ability to perform a Class I air brake test. Typically, this has been done in the field by a manager.

CSX petitioned the FRA for a waiver allowing us to utilize virtual simulation technology to complete the hands-on requirements. After providing a demonstration of the technology and answering some follow-up questions, the FRA ultimately granted the waiver petition.

The air brake test simulation allows a student to visually inspect a variety of randomized freight cars, as part of a train, while manipulating brake components as necessary to properly configure the brake system as well as ensure the proper protection is in place. The student determines correct brake pressure and inspects for brake application and release. Although led by an instructor, students may also practice at their own pace, from any device with a record of their performance given at the end.

Q:  How long did you consider the idea of virtual simulations before you pulled the trigger and decided to move forward?

JB: CSX has always been a leader in innovation and technology. After meeting with Heartwood and determining that it met our interactivity requirements, we decided to move forward. We take all safety decisions seriously. We evaluated vendors and several months later moved into production with them.

Q: When did you deploy the Training Simulations to your workforce? And did you deploy on PC or iPad—and why?

JB: We rolled out the training in early 2019 using PC format. We chose this format initially so that our instructors could lead the conversation and identify any potential gaps that may need to be reviewed or clarified while the student is actively involved in the simulation.

The training that we have is currently instructor-led, with instructors serving as the avatar and interactive student participation. The training is now iPad-supported as well.

Q: What was the workforce response? Any knee-jerk reactions?

JB: Our employees were curious about the simulation. As we’ve rolled it out and they’re seeing it in action, they’re realizing that the simulation really is able to replicate the live environment. And the more exposure they have to it, the more enthusiasm stirs.  

Q: Any initial challenges with this relatively new technology?

JB: Employees were skeptical at first about the simulator’s ability to demonstrate and produce realistic scenarios. Fortunately, there is now widespread adoption and support.

Q: Were there any moments where you realized you could train for things in a simulation that were impossible otherwise?

JB: When training in a live environment we talk about many different scenarios around what could occur. But, students don’t always get to see and experience each scenario because much of the training focuses on the internal parts of the system and what’s happening inside. So, yes, with a simulation there is opportunity to demonstrate the internal workings of the air brake equipment that cannot be done traditionally.

When talking about airflow, for example, and whether you have the proper pressure, there’s an opportunity to show how that feels. You can demonstrate how those internal parts are actually working and providing the braking systems with air in order to stop.

Q: Were there any indirect benefits from this training? Both expected and unexpected?

JB: This particular simulation has allowed us to take a closer look at other safety-related tasks and functions that our employees perform. Virtual environments create endless scenario-based options to help broaden employee skills, while at the same time provide opportunities to other employees who may want to improve their safety competencies. It’s not limited to those who are required to have the training.

The ability to practice within the virtual environment is leading us toward better knowledge retention and fewer mistakes in the work environment. Employees retain and understand more of what they’re learning, and they’re remembering the safety protocols that they’re practicing.

In addition, the virtual simulator is more adaptive to modifications in training modules than a set instructor-led program in the field.

Q: How many people a year do you intend to train with this app?

JB: With this air brake simulation, we anticipate training approximately one-third of our transportation employees each year. And we’ll be utilizing a version of the same simulation that’s more specific to our mechanical employees and their required inspections. Overall, we intend to provide supplemental training in addition to the hands-on inspection requirements that they already have. So, every three years we’ll cycle through the whole population. Every transportation employee will be trained on it.

Q: Why did you choose Heartwood’s simulations?

JB: Technology underpins everything we do at CSX, and Heartwood is just one example of how CSX leverages advanced technology to modernize our railroad. Our goal is to be the best-run railroad in North America. To do that we are constantly striving to make our railroad the safest, most efficient and reliable service provider for our customers. After seeing a demonstration of Heartwood’s products, we decided to partner with them to help further our goal.

Q: Final Question: Are there other trainings you’d consider using simulated training for? What and why?

JB: Absolutely. We are constantly seeking to improve and innovate our railroad. This has opened up options across other departments, particularly in mechanical and engineering. Heartwood has offered some possible ideas for future technology beyond existing benchmarks they have in place, such as blue signal protection, roadway worker training and locomotive cab inspection. With limitless possibilities, we see many potential opportunities to elevate and expand the way we deliver training.

Reach out to Heartwood to learn more about this and other industry-specific simulations in the pipeline.

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