“Railroad University” Enhances Workplace Safety and Productivity

Before taking their places on the railroad, newly hired craft employees learn to perform their jobs safely and efficiently at the Norfolk Southern Training Center in McDonough, Ga.

All craft employees typically receive three to nine weeks of training to gain a foundation in technical and safety skills before moving into the field. “It allows them to train in a railroad environment without being a danger to themselves or others,” said Dominik Browne, the center’s manager.

Conductor Training Goes Virtual

Conductor trainees at the company’s training center learn the fine points of switching rail cars without leaving the classroom. In 2014, the center introduced a 3-D computer simulation with a goal to accelerate training, enabling trainees to assemble rail cars on outbound trains in a virtual rail yard.

Norfolk Southern hired a company that develops modeling and simulation training tools for the U.S. military to help us create the training software. The simulation focuses on decisions that conductors must make to safely and efficiently move rail cars in a yard, using the fewest moves possible and the least amount of time to build outbound trains. A simulation for beginners offers step-by-step coaching and bird’s-eye and ground-level views of a virtual yard.

Opened in 1974, the center was the rail industry’s first dedicated facility for training and educating employees, becoming known as “Railroad University.” In early 2015, the company opened a new classroom facility featuring state-of-the-art technology, including touchscreens, smart boards, and tablets. These digital technologies help employees sharpen their cognitive abilities using interactive computer games to learn and perform a variety of railroad jobs, including sorting and inspecting rail cars and fixing locomotives.

The addition nearly doubled classroom space to 50,000 square feet, enabling the company to train up to 1,000 employees at any given time. The extra space gives the company more hiring and training flexibility.

The center’s state-of-the-art facilities also include:

  • A train dispatch simulator and 12 locomotive training simulators.
  • A four-track freight yard and two additional training tracks for boots-on-the-ground experience walking on rail tracks and mounting and dismounting rail cars.
  • A signal-training area providing computer-based learning strategies and signal-training models, and an outside signal area for hands-on practice.
  • A two-bay locomotive maintenance and repair shop.

Training in 2014

During 2014, 3,248 Operations Division employees received 342,456 hours of training through 154 programs at the training center. They included:

  • 1,328 conductor trainees.
  • 451 carmen, electricians, machinists, and locomotive service engineers.
  • 490 signals employees.
  • 303 dispatchers and locomotive engineers.
  • 340 maintenance-of-way employees in bridge, equipment, and track welding service.
  • 325 supervisory employees.

Training on Risk Factors

Employees in 2015 will participate in a half-day safety workshop, “Risk Factors,” that focuses on why people engage in risky behaviors. Developed by DuPont Sustainable Solutions, the program uses images and testimonials to convey the importance of working safely. With about one-third of Norfolk Southern’s employees hired during the past five years, the company is taking steps to strengthen and review safety processes. DuPont’s program reinforces the company’s behavior-based safety and leadership principles.

Economic Impact of Training

Norfolk Southern pumps more than $2 million annually into the local economy through lodging and meals for employees attending the company’s training center at McDonough.