FRA Grants CN Comment Period Extension for Virtual Training Software

Written by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
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Following a 45-day public comment period that ended on Sept. 8 on CN’s waiver request to use virtual 3D simulation as an alternative to hands-on training required by 49 CFR 232.203(b)(8), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is extending the comment period for an additional 60 days “to ensure all interested parties have ample time to provide their comments following a demonstration of the software scheduled for the second half of September.”

According to the FRA, refresher training is required at intervals not to exceed three years, and must consist of classroom and hands-on training, as well as testing. On July 25, the FRA published notice of its receipt of a June 28 petition from CN U.S. subsidiary Illinois Central Railroad Company, for itself and on behalf of all U.S. railroad subsidiaries operating under CN, for resubmittal of a petition for a waiver of compliance from certain provisions of the federal railroad safety regulations contained at 49 CFR Part 232, Brake System Safety Standards for Freight and Other Non-Passenger Trains and Equipment; End-of-Train Devices.

In the waiver petition, CN cites FRA’s Jan. 10 denial of its previous petition and states that its June 28 resubmission addresses the concerns raised in FRA’s decision letter. CN explains that the proposed “systematic, blended training curriculum exceeds the training objectives” required by the regulation and “is designed to increase user proficiency” and “reduce air brake defects across the CN network.” Additionally, CN notes that it “only plans to use this requested waiver for refresher training of employees in train and engine service,” and not for any other craft.

After publication of the July 25 notice, in a letter dated Aug. 19, CN stated that it is seeking to assemble a meeting and demonstration of the subject software for FRA and union representatives in the second half of September and is therefore requesting to extend the comment period by an additional 45 days.

FRA says it understands that the demonstration of the subject software has been scheduled for the end of September and extended the comment period to Nov. 7.

A copy of CN’s petition, as well as all written communications concerning the petition, is available for review online.

Interested parties, the FRA says, are invited to participate in these proceedings by submitting written views, data or comments. FRA says it does not anticipate scheduling a public hearing in connection with these proceedings since “the facts do not appear to warrant a hearing.” If any interested party prefers an opportunity for oral comment and a public hearing, they should notify FRA, in writing, before the end of the comment period and specify the basis for their request.

Communications received by Nov. 7 will be considered by FRA before final action is taken. Comments received after that date will be considered if practicable.

According to a Railway Age article by Heartwood CEO Raj Raheja from Sept. 20, 2021, the first training waiver application was filed by BNSF back in 2011. This waiver was geared toward exempting it from certain provisions of 49 CFR Part 232 that the railroad met with its self-created “Web-based software application that it characterizes as Air Brake System Virtual Training Environment (ABSVTE), which conceptually closely parallels Locomotive Engineer simulator training.”

Since then, training has evolved–and BNSF has kept pace with it, partnering with Heartwood on its own simulation training buildouts.

Courtesy of Heartwood

In January of 2020, CSX obtained a waiver of compliance from certain provisions of the Federal railroad safety regulations contained at 49 CFR Part 232 and instead used a virtual 3D simulation-based training for all conductors and supervisors responsible for performing Class I freight air brakes tests. This simulation was deployed “to satisfy the ‘hands-on’ portion of periodic refresher training required by 49 CFR 232.203(b)(8)” and you can read about their success in this Railway Age interview.

In June 2021, FRA Staff Director, Railroad Safety Partnerships Rob Castiglione, Heartwood Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer Neil Wadhawan and Consultant Brian Keller joined Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono for a podcast to discuss Heartwood’s virtual simulation platform, which helped to certify transportation and mechanical employees in conducting 49 CFR Part 232 brake tests at Norfolk Southern (NS), and obtained a FRA simulation training waiver to meet the regulatory requirements.

Editor’s Note: This simulator training technology is under consideration by the FRA (specifically for CN), but if it is approved for CN, there are two possible outcomes: 1) Other railroads may apply for a waiver or 2) A ruling may be adopted to allow railroads to take on the technology without applying for a waiver.

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