By Walter Weart
A half-century ago, railroad workers were trained one way: on the job. Locomotive engineers started out as firemen and conductors started out as brakemen. If they gained enough experience and were good enough, they were promoted.
But on-the-job training took a long time and new recruits didn’t always learn the proper way to perform a task from experienced workers. There had to be a better training method, rail managers believed.
In 1968, Burlington Northern Railroad found one. The Class I teamed up with Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Overland Park, Kan., to create a training program at the university. BN already had been training workers at a yard in nearby Kansas City.
“A more formal approach and better location was needed,” says Scott Schafer, BNSF Railway Co.’s general director of railroad training services.
Eventually, other railroads sought training services at JCCC, leading to the 1988 formation of the National Academy of Railroad Sciences (NARS), one of the largest railroad training schools in North America. Jointly operated and staffed by BNSF and JCCC, NARS provides more than 100 courses for people seeking jobs in the industry, newly hired rail workers and long-time railroaders.
The academy’s mission: to provide more on-campus services — and off-campus options — that meet job seekers’ and railroaders’ training needs. Job seekers come to NARS to learn and hone railroad skills. The academy does not guarantee them employment, but many graduates are recruited by railroads.
Long-time railroaders turn to NARS to gain additional certification training. They come from hundreds of railroads, primarily regionals and short lines, but also most of the Class Is and some Mexican and passenger railroads.
NARS offers courses for engineers, conductors, welders, signal maintainers, diesel-engine maintenance and freight-car repair workers, locomotive electricians and mechanics, track and bridge inspectors and maintenance workers, telecommunications specialists and supervisors.
The curriculum includes a few recent additions. In spring, the academy launched a locomotive engineer training program for passenger railroads, and introduced a training Web site for regionals and short lines. Students now can access Web-based courses from any computer vs. computer-based training (CBT) courses that require dedicated hardware.
“Our challenge is to transition from CBT to Internet-based training,” says Schafer, who heads NARS.
The academy’s managers can focus a bit more attention on the transition because enrollment is down slightly. NARS’ enrollment peaked at more than 2,000 in both 2005 and 2006 because of attrition associated with the rail industry’s 60 years in age/30 years of service retirement criteria and hiring demands driven by increasing rail traffic. But last year, the academy trained less than 2,000 students as the economy weakened and railroad hiring tapered off, says Schafer. After graduating 713 new conductors in 2005 and 810 in 2006, graduations dropped to 649 in 2007.
Enrollment will continue to average between 1,000 and 2,000 students, says Schafer.
NARS’ enrollment has ebbed and flowed since 1993, when BN Director of Technical Training Edward Butt and JCCC educational consultant Susan Lindsay collaborated to develop a formal, academic-based training program for new and long-time rail workers.
At the time, the Class Is formed a technical training coalition involving other community colleges throughout the United States. But soon after JCCC hired staff and faculty, the other colleges dropped out.
“Lindsay set the curriculum based on industry-specific requirements and contracted with the BNSF for individuals who could teach the required skills,” says NARS Director Andy Burton, adding that instructors receive extensive training and are JCCC-certified.
Now, the college provides the academic expertise and BNSF, the technical expertise, making NARS a “perfect blend of both,” says Schafer.
The academy currently is staffed with 67 instructors, of which 60 are experienced BNSF employees in various crafts and several are bilingual.
The academy occupies 130,000 square feet of office, classroom, lab and multimedia studio space at JCCC. Training equipment includes 21 simulators, of which 16 are locomotive (Electronic Train Management System-enabled) simulators, three are classroom locomotive emulators and three are brake racks that can simulate air brakes on one locomotive and two rail cars. BNSF also maintains 32 locomotive simulators and 700 CBT terminals across its network.
But training isn’t limited to classrooms, labs and simulators. NARS operates two off-site rail yards within five miles of the college for hands-on exercises. A yard in Lenexa, Kan., features four locomotives, 14 cars and three tracks so students can learn safe working practices in a realistic, but controlled setting.
“We also conduct remote-control locomotive training using units from both manufacturers,” says Nacho Quintero, BNSF’s senior manager of conductor training.
Although the academy trains dozens of Class I recruits and workers, NARS has developed a relationship with the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) to provide training for many regional and short-line workers. The academy has provided training services for more than 200 ASLRRA member railroads.
Those services include six courses offered in a “FastTrack Program” for conductors, carmen, locomotive electricians or mechanics, signalmen and welders. Students who complete the curriculum receive a certificate and college credits. Each course includes classroom and lab training over a four-, six- or eight-week period, depending on the job craft. Some railroads underwrite a portion of FastTrack costs for recruits who graduate.
The academy also provides “distance learning” courses, available via telephone or online groups. In addition, NARS offers several e-learning options, including the TRAX Learning Management System, an online training site for regionals and short lines launched May 1.
TRAX provides training modules that address Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requirements for transportation, mechanical and engineering, as well information technology courses.
“We have broken down the modules into work groups, such as mechanical departments for locomotives and freight cars, conductors and engineers, as well as maintenance-of-way employees,” says Larry Wright, BNSF’s director of training service development.
The TRAX site can trace ASLRRA employee participation so a short-line manager can provide the FRA an official training record with dates and modules.
NARS also has modified the modules to meet current safety and security requirements for hazardous materials and the “Securing America’s Railroads” program.
The academy continues to strive for better training facilities, equipment and programs to incorporate emerging technologies and provide a well-rounded curriculum.
— Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer. He completed a designated supervisor of locomotive engineering course at NARS in 2003.
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