12 month Railway Route Qualifications – what are the costs to a freight rail operator?

Last Updated on August 24, 2023

Slow Railway route familiarisation can be a major bottleneck to growth. Existing staff may need to move to new routes on the network. New staff may need to be route qualified. Changed track conditions may require re-qualification of previously qualified drivers.

The length of time it is taking using traditional means to achieve route qualifications or re-qualification can be onerous to the operator and/or constructor.

Example for a Regional Freight Network.

There is 10,000km of track and expanding – doubling in size in the 10 years – especially through acquisitions.

There are 2000 drivers with around 15% new intake of driver trainees per annum.

Drivers can be qualified on some parts of the network but not others. Drivers need to be moved around the network sometimes and they need to be competent for a significant number of connected routes and depots to be useful to be able to be rostered.

For example between a port and a regional rail town – the mainline to the coast is through a mountain range between the coast and the town, plus there are some 15 lines from the town to the mines, where each mine maybe some 200km away. The driver needs to be route competent and confident on all or most of these routes for them to be a viable resource.

Traditionally, 12 months is the minimum time it takes as a ‘best case scenario’ for a competent driver, with train driving skills, to be deemed competent and qualify for a complex route and more for a set of connected routes on a sub-network, around a depot. In some cases lik ein the Hunter Valley it takes 24 months to achieve route competency across a network.

The new driver to the route will need to be in cabin with a route-qualified driver to be supervised for that entire time.

Without the complete set of route qualifications, this puts enormous pressure on the roster, and also pressure on other qualified staff to cover and train for the route network.

A driver without competency across a network is of limited usefulness to the business.

For complex routes, the new driver to the route may need to drive the new route up to 35 times to learn the nuances of the route.

Currently train operations are a two-driver operations process, so supervised training is a rostering issue, but not an extra expense. But ECTS signalling changes coming soon mean that routes will be one-driver operations. This means supervised training will be a double-up.

The average age for a train driver is now over 57 years old, and driver attrition through retirement is a major issue. So right now it is absolutely critical to bring more drivers up to route qualification competency, as attrition is occurring now.

There is no problem with ‘recruitment’ as they receive many applications for any job posting for train drivers, as the salary is high. with salaries of $150,000 to $240,000 per year, plus overtime and benefits.

Route qualification elements may include

  1. Where the signals are
  2. Landmark identification
  3. Kilometre markings and
  4. Where multiple track components are
  5. Where inclines and declines are, and there gradients
  6. Where and when to apply brakes
  7. Where to throttle up
  8. Risk areas – such as cattle and farmland
  9. Sidings and sidings adjacent to signals
  10. Adjacent lights, tracks, highways and signals
  11. Braking curves for loaded and unloaded 2km long coal trains on inclines and declines.

All routes are risk-assessed. There is a long list of risks for each route. This list is provided in a theory paper-based training assessment by a qualified Training And Assessor (TAE).

Trainees then undergo a supervised, practical route training assessment to be qualified for the route. Here the trainer signs off on both competence and confidence of the driver.

Some routes are seasonal due to mines opening and closing, harvesting and depot seasons. This makes training rostering for routes even more complicated.

Complex route qualifications only last 12 months, and then need to be re-signed off. Seasonal routes then become very complex to manage and roster. This happens very often not only due to weather events, but especially due to mining opening and closures linked to commodity price changes. For example when the price of coal goes up, dormant mines may open after years of closure. The classroom based ‘theory’ route competence remains valid for 36 months, but even this can be at risk with some of the seasonality.

These issues then become very complex to open a route that has been closed for one year or more using traditional methods. Previously route-qualified drivers need to go through a practical assessment under tuition, which happens quite often with the mining changes.
Maintain currency is the goal. Perpetual accreditation.

What are the costs to the business?

The costs of 12 month minimum route qualification processes are high, but these costs are hidden within the OPEX of the business.

What are the salaries of train drivers?

The base rate is approximately AUD $160,000 pa + super at 11%.

It is standard for a driver, only doing day shifts, to earn AUD $180,000 pa.

Many drivers in the coal network earn over AUD $250,000 pa with overtime.

Some simple calculations.

For the 15% of 2000 drivers as an intake, that’s 300 drivers, to take over 12 months for route competency training component at $165,000 pa salary incl super is $49.5m pa.

For the 200 drivers (10% of the skilled 2000 drivers) using only $200k pa incl super – who need new route qualifications that are currently 12 months each, that is a $40m pa cost to the business.

Added costs include trainers and supervisors, travel and accommodation costs across a huge network, rostering and administration burdens. A simple $1m pa costs is used.

Access to trains, depots and track also adds high costs and complications, especially as the operator moves to a one-person train ETCS operations.

The total ‘hidden’ cost to the operator for route qualifications is around $100m pa to the business, or $500m over 5 years.

Additional costs are the opportunity cost of missed train slots and cancelled services because they can’t find a route-qualified driver in time. Each time a slot is missed, that is $1m in revenue lost, per train. This situation occurs ‘multiple’ times a year, but the registry of cancelled services maybe ‘hidden’ by admin for cultural reasons.

Other hidden costs like this easily make the solution a significant problem for the business, plus the culture of excessive admin, stressful rostering and risk to safety. As the ETCS one-driver system comes on board, as more elderly train drivers retire – the costs increase and the pressure intensifies in the business.

Digital Training Solutions

What kind of digital learning and training solutions can help the organisation, and what have they tried?

In-Cabin Route Induction Videos

A technical-savvy train driver setup cabin cameras and overlaid gradients, sign-posts, kilometre markers and overlays to help familiarisation.

These videos are stored on sharepoint internally. The videos are sped up 2x. Anyone internally can access the videos anytime.

The cost of this train driver was supported by the business to do the videos to reduce the time for familiarisation.

These videos have been up and running for several years. They are anecdotally known to be ‘well-accessed’.

However – the route familiarisation time has not reduced one iota across the operator. Why not?

Physical Simulators with CGI

The operator has received several quotes for a group of physical simulators with CGI modelling of the 10,000km to multiple levels of detail. The prices are ‘astronomical’.

Simple maths of a low price of $10,000 per kilometre is already $100m of just the CGI component. And this would not include custom scans and high detail resolution with gradients, inclines and all the details required for route familiarisation competency and qualification.

Obviously the CGI videos will need to be re-built and updated regularly, with high maintenance costs.

Physical simulators sit in only certain locations, so they are not accessible like a desktop PC or laptop, or even a phone. This means drivers would have to physically travel to these locations and do the route familiarisation one person at a time. And given the familiarisation takes 6-12 months, how would this logistically work? Or if a 1000km track needs to be driven 35 times to be familiar, does that driver reside near the depot for a month and book out the simulator 8 hours a day.

Physical simulators have single person throughput at a time.

Physical simulators are known to break. They will be a long way from the maintenance ICT support so maybe offline for weeks or months under these scenarios. Longer as time passes and the Simulators age.

Physical simulators are very expensive, and take a long time to deploy – typically 12 – 18 months.

The Training Eco-system

As has been seen by the in-cab videos, training is not just a technological solution. It needs to be deployed within a change management and sustainable ecosystem.

The technology, the links to credentialing and custom measurements, the change management, the learning technology strategy, feedback mechanisms, cultural management, engagement along with ease of access, user experience and quality of design, and key triggers that bring thousands of staff ‘on the journey’ makes a quality solution.

Urban CGI Solutions

We provide digital railway training for route qualifications and other competencies as an integrated solution to maximise buy-in and the realisation of business benefits – including reduced driver training times in this instance.

This is how we have achieved >50% reductions in driver training times across so many projects and scenarios, with enormous benefits realisation in competency, retention, confidence, timeframes and culture.

Our railway route qualifications are used across network operators to drive competency and confidence, reduce route qualification timelines, reduce track access, provide desktop or mobile access for offline training, reduce administration, micro-credential competency accreditation and scale to thousands of users as need.

Contact us today to learn more.