Did You Know Series — FRA’s Waiver Process for Training

This article was originally published in the Railway Age on September 20th, 2021.

Welcome to the second of our Did You Know? Series, where we focus on Railroad industry training, regulations, and the various influences that make things happen. You can find the first article in the series here.

FRA waivers come in handy—when you know they exist. Every company, utility and mode of transportation experienced accelerated technological adoption in 2020 to accommodate pandemic challenges.

Fortunately, railroads had been moving in this direction already—but they soon realized how much work was left to be done. This is where FRA waivers are excellent options to have in mind, particularly as FRA recognizes these struggles and seeks to help the industry safely and expediently bridge the gaps. This waiver provision is part of the regulatory environment, of course, but understanding their potential application in a training context is important.

So, what are these FRA waivers specifically—and how are they helping railroads train more efficiently, completely, and economically? We have answers below.

FRA Waivers That Most Railroads Missed

Although it wasn’t a secret, there was little fanfare around the release of this “waiver utilization by railroad” capability. In fact, the option has always been around, but it has been underutilized by railroads historically. There just wasn’t a pressing need to do so. COVID changed that.

With a waiver in place, the FRA grants exceptions for performing a variety of time and labor-intensive tasks. These are typically scenarios that can be completed in shorter time frames, with fewer people or with less regularity, and still meet FRA’s stringent safety requirements.

For example, when on the FRA Waiver Inventory and Utilization page, we can see a variety of waiver options available, from Inspection & Testing Intervals; Operations & Maintenance; and the one we’ve been most focused on exploring—Training & Testing of Employees.

The process for obtaining a waiver includes filing a public notice of intent to the Federal Register to meet part 211 of title 49 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). And then “[i]nterested parties are invited to participate in these proceedings by submitting written views, data, or comments,” as there is no public hearing on the waivers unless someone requests it. It’s not a complicated  process, offering huge returns to those who take advantage of it.

So, who is using these training waivers—and how?

Railroads Winning with Training Waivers

The first training waiver application that led the pack here was filed by forward-thinking 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.

And then in January of 2020, CSX likewise obtained 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. It 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.

As noted in the waiver request, CSX shared its understanding that the simulation would “improve employees’ knowledge of air brake components and functions and increase proficiency when performing the Class I freight air brake test.” How? The realistic simulation provided targeted, performance-based training that would be available to the trainee anytime, and anywhere – so there was no time-limit on the practice.

And the tasks required were equally robust to in-person training, with the user “required to perform a variety of inspection and remediation tasks relating to preprogrammed defects including, but not limited to, closed cut-out cocks, uncoupled air hoses, closed angle cocks, improperly positioned retainer valves, and fouled brake rigging.” Again, this harkens back to the ability to train as much—and as tailored to an individual—as needed. Other railroad companies agreed.

CN obtained a waiver to satisfy the same requirement, stating, “The training will better equip CN employees to perform Class I freight air brake tests and there will be no impact on safety.” CN sought to “apply the waiver system-wide to all CN personnel responsible for performing Class I freight air brake tests.”

Further elaborating the need for this switch, CN shared the challenges around staging various types of freight air brake equipment with defects, which is necessary to demonstrate the location of key components. This is something a simulation can accurately recreate, without tying up expensive equipment. Not only that, but simulations can also recreate emergency situations and offer practice responding to things that could never be modeled effectively in-person without putting personnel in danger. And with COVID-19 restrictions in place around person-to-person contact, the need for training via simulation has helped railroads meet safety standards in a scalable, targeted way.

“Experience is better than theory, but length of service does not guarantee the opportunity for experience.” says Richard Dean, Vice President, Service Delivery at Keolis Commuter Services. “Simulation technology levels up the chance of gaining experience with a planned way of providing it in a very safe way, if people do the wrong thing in this environment no person is harmed, no equipment is damaged, and the only outcome is learning.”

Enhancing Training with Simulations

It’s important to note though, that simulation training does not seek to fully replace traditional hands-on learning, but rather to augment it. Offering the ability to create user-targeted training that focuses on individual carmen, mechanic, conductor (and so on) challenges, simulations are exceptional for ensuring that no skills are overlooked, and gaps in understanding are effectively eliminated.

Simulated training expands a worker’s knowledge base beyond his/her craft, helping them attain a level of cross-training and expertise that was not possible ten years ago.


Welcome to the second of our Did You Know? Series, where we focus on Railroad industry training, regulations, and the various influences that make things happen. You can find the first article in the series here.

This article was originally published in the Railway Age on September 20th, 2021.