How Virtual Simulations Can Support Railroads in Service Recovery

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How Virtual Simulations Can Support Railroads in Service Recovery

In this three-part series, we’re exploring railroads’ efforts to restore service as they accommodate shifting operating ratios and fixed asset allocation considerations – and sharing ways to get ahead of these rising costs. In this first article, we’ll share challenges railroads are facing as they seek to restore service and the corresponding operational impact, detailing how industry leaders can turn to a technologically advanced solution to realign functions, maximize efficiencies and enhance safety.

Challenging Times for Railroads

As we all know, the pandemic affected every industry, testing the system and reliance upon the idea of “this is how we always did things”.

What is likely not apparent to outsiders though, is the fact that its impacts were felt even more acutely in the rail industry thanks to the unique challenges presented by multimodal transport. The resulting fallout continues to be difficult, with complex supply chains heavily disrupted affecting everything from food, medical supplies and clothing, to electronics, vehicles and the necessary raw materials that formed the basis for pretty much every consumer product good.

Product development in China and other parts of the world were delayed or shut down entirely. Shipping containers were delayed at sea for months on end, and upon arrival there was a shortage of dock workers and drivers on hand to facilitate the offloading and transport of goods. And this labor shortage was felt nationwide as well.

And it all fell on the shoulders of those perceived as the bottleneck in the equation — railroads, shipping and trucking.

With supply chain challenges often manifesting in a complete breakdown, railroads continue to be increasingly relied upon to help alleviate these logistical issues.

All of this compounds upon railroad challenges, as the industry found itself tasked with an increasingly mission critical need considering businesses shutting down – and its own labor shortage to boot. And it came at an inopportune time, as crises tend to do, bringing  host of impacts that are still felt today. Service suffered and has yet to rebound, leaving railroads faced with an even larger concern – the scrutiny of the STB.

Rail’s difficulties around hiring and training is arguably the most significant operational impact railroads are facing right now. But, let’s back up a moment to better understand some of the underlying issues.

A Significant Operational Impact Railroads are Facing

Although optimizing operations is a fiscally sound activity, doing so in the midst of our current and ever-shifting geopolitical landscape has proven challenging. With industries such as agriculture rethinking business models and bracing for whatever might come next to get out ahead of it, the need for transport by rail has not slowed down. Unfortunately, service has not kept pace and continues to lag behind leaving farmers faced with a potential culling to head off disaster.

Unfortunately, hiring at railroads continues to be a pain point, as it is with many critical job functions these days – and as railroads had already begun a transition toward PSR, the timing was not in their favor. PSR resulted in the creation of expert teams, a skilled and versatile workforce meant to manage a variety of railway operations.

But then layoffs happened worldwide, and a large number of this very specifically skilled workforce went the path of many other workers globally and did not return.

Hiring isn’t the only roadblock here, as there were additional operating precautions that had to be adopted to maintain a generally safe and pandemic-free work environment.

With so many constraints applied during a time when a workforce is stretched thin and faced with new requirements – onboarding efficiently (and safely) is a must. But is sounds nearly impossible when one considers the cost associated with traditional options.

The annual cost of one day of classroom training is estimated to be more than $21M just for mechanical employees. And combining a high turnover rate happening at a time when trainings must cover more than ever before due to PSR (Precision Scheduled Railroading), that number is likely a low estimate.

So, tasked with maintaining an operating ratio that demonstrates a railroad’s efficiencies, management has been faced with incredible challenges, both as the pandemic wore on and through to present day. Keeping costs low and generating revenue in excess of expenses is a tall order for any railroad’s balance sheet. Recognizing this, railroads have been working to realign training functions in ways that maximize operating ratios, as they seek to repopulate their exceptionally skilled workforce with new hires.

Realigning Functions to Expedite Service Recovery

Industry leaders are turning to a technologically advanced solutions to realign training functions to maximize this capacity and restore service quickly and safely. To state it plainly, they’re trying to compress more training into less time without sacrificing any learning. This may sound impossible, but with simulation training, it’s precisely what happens as trainings are developed.

In fact, railroads are discovering that using tools like simulations and other technologies add layers of benefits to their training programs, offering:

  • Centralized and standardized data, which results in accurate record keeping, better information-fed decisions and personalized feedback
  • Active training opportunities, leading to more effective training sessions and higher knowledge retention
  • Portability of education methods, requiring significantly less travel and transition time for trainees
  • Instant access to industry expertise, allowing students and trainers to focus on learning and teaching, not searching for solutions or information.

More specifically, this means the information provided in a traditional eight hour training can be covered equally in less time, offering increased practice and enhanced long-term retention for learners as this “found time” can be used for more efficie

Facilitators who lead these trainings are typically craft experts taking time away from their current roles to pass knowledge down to new learners. But in a technology-driven training system, this knowledge is captured in one place that is accessible anytime, from anywhere by learners across the nation. And the training tracks specific progress of learners, by craft, so there aren’t any gaps in understanding. Moreover, specific remediation can happen immediately to ensure the highest safety levels are met.

This frees craft experts to do what they do best, which is perform their specific job functions, while spending a mere fraction of the time previously required on reviewing trainee progress. And this also frees them to spend more time reviewing hands-on activities in the field with newer craftsman. Best of all? It costs less long-term.

Simulation training provides learning that flows from one human interaction (the student), and it blends perfectly with the basic principles of PSR, advancing students’ understanding of multiple crafts over a much shorter period of time.

This is obviously just one component of the ‘restoring service’ dilemma, but we figured it was a great place to start, as it can help railroads feeling the worker shortage crunch today. We have trainings ready to license that are being used by Amtrak, BNSF, CSX, Union Pacific, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern Lines and others – and we’re happy to tailor one to meet your specific needs to help steadily reduce those operating ratios.

There are also assets to consider in this equation, of course. And simulation training offers an assist when it comes to asset management as well. We’ll speak to that in part two! Be sure to check back for it – and please reach out to learn more about simulation training