By Keith Norbury

Training employees in safety procedures is an absolute “must” as part of running a successful railroad. Canadian National Railway has taken that a step further by launching a safety program for its customers.

The first two week-long training sessions for major carload customers held in the CN Campus Partnership Training Program at CN’s Winnipeg education campus in mid-May and mid-June received “huge positive feedback,” said David Radford, CN’s director of Operations, Training and Development. “I think our customer partnership program will really allow us to work jointly with our customers in promoting safety and making it safer not only for them but ourselves as well,” Mr. Radford said in an interview. “I think it’s a huge positive step forward in our supply chain collaboration with customers.”

About 70 customers attended classes in the two sessions to upgrade their skills in such areas as railway safety, track basics, and non-main track and yard switching, he said. The courses, which lasted one to three days, included field exercises as well as classroom instruction. The classes were free with the exception of the non-main track training, “which is a certification program,” CN spokesman Mark Hallman noted in an email message. “The instructors were very engaged with the groups, and ensured each class was a combination of theory, discussion and hands-on training,” Mr. Hallman said.

A second session at the Winnipeg campus is scheduled for Sept. 12-16, while a session of French courses is scheduled for another time in September. The railway has also scheduled a customer program for Oct. 17-21 at its education campus in Homewood, Ill., near Chicago.

“Our target audiences will eventually include smaller carload customers, short-line railways, and intermodal customers,” CN President and CEO Claude Mongeau said in a news release this April that announced the program. “We think this kind of collaboration will help ensure safer operations throughout the entire railway supply chain and instill the same safety mindset CN has among its customer base.”

More than 15,000 CN employees have completed railway training programs at the two campuses since they opened in 2014 — about 10,000 at Winnipeg, said Mr. Radford, who assumed his current position at CN in November 2012 to bring the railway’s training organization together under a single umbrella. “And part of that initiative was completion of the two training centres,” said Mr. Radford, who has been with CN since 1999 in various capacities, primarily in western Canada and most recently as a Superintendent of Operations.

In his current position, which is based in Winnipeg, he oversees operations at both campuses, and is responsible for their course content. In the case of the new customer courses, that development was based on their input.

“We do a lot of tours of the centres and our customers that come through say, ‘Hey, we like to come here and bring our employees here to learn about railway safety or rail maintenance.’ That’s how we created those four courses,” said Radford, who provided a brief introduction to the customers at some of the courses. “I know other railways have or do similar types of programs but we didn’t necessarily build similar to something they do. We just took what we heard from our customers and built these four courses.”

The Winnipeg campus, at Transcona near CN’s main shop facility east of the city, trains employees from across Canada while the Illinois campus trains U.S. workers. The campuses’ learning laboratories feature locomotive, crane, and signal and communication simulators. Outdoor labs provide field training on dedicated rolling stock and other equipment such as welders.

According to Mr. Hallman, comments from customers who attended the Winnipeg session in mid-May included the following: “Most valuable take away for me is returning to work with a good grasp on basic rail inspection experience coupled with the ability to distinguish between safe, acceptable track and track which could potentially result in unsafe work or lost productivity due to incident caused by bad track on our site.”

The cost of building the two training centres totalled $60 million. Mr. Hallman said the imperative for the investment was that the railway has hired thousands of new workers since 2010 to accommodate freight traffic growth and to replace retirees. “The seismic shift in CN’s workforce is evidenced by the fact that Generation Y — people in their 20s and 30s — now account for the largest overall segment of the employee population,” Mr. Hallman said. “As workforce renewal proceeded, CN recognized the need to institute new, comprehensive on-boarding and training programs focused on instilling a strong safety culture in new employees and reinforcing it among current employees who are learning new skills or upgrading existing ones.”

Mr. Radford said the employee training has also been “hugely successful, and allowed us to reinforce our safety measures with our employees. When we built the training centres, we made sure we had both classroom and hands-on components to the courses — not necessarily something we had in the past. It allows our students to learn in the classroom and then go outside and practice on the hands-on portion of it.”