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Training in yard switching goes virtual

Dan MacKay, manager training center, shows off the new computer simulation now in use at the railroad’s Technical Training Center to help conductor trainees learn the fine points of switching railcars.


Norfolk Southern’s conductor trainees now can learn the fine points of switching railcars without leaving the classroom. A new computer simulation “game” developed for NS enables trainees at the railroad’s Technical Training Center at McDonough, Ga., to build outbound trains in a virtual rail yard.

The 3-D simulation, one of the training center’s newest training tools, was on view at the center’s Safety and Service Expo booth, along with displays that highlighted training for mechanical and engineering employees. NS hired ICF International, which develops modeling and simulation training tools for the U.S. military, to create the conductor-training software, with input from NS experts, said Dan MacKay, training center manager.

“Development on this started in late 2013, and we began using it in the classroom this year as demonstration,” MacKay said. “Ultimately, we plan to have three tiers of simulation – beginner, intermediate, and expert.”

The entry-level switching simulation is in use now, and work has begun on developing more complex training scenarios, MacKay said. The simulation focuses on the decisions that conductors must make to safely and efficiently switch cars, using the fewest moves possible and the least amount of time to build outbound trains. The beginner simulation offers step-by-step coaching and gives trainees bird’s-eye and ground-level views of a virtual yard.

“This provides us with another layer of training before conductors are sent into the field,” MacKay said. “Before, it was watch a video and then perform the physical task in the center’s training yard, but with the size of our yard, there is only so much we can emulate.”

Eventually, it might be possible to develop training scenarios based on the layout of specific NS yards, he said.

“We’re trying to accelerate their training with this simulation,” MacKay said. “This is in its infancy, but we have high expectations.”