It’s that time of year! Time to go back to school! For railroaders, with continuing education and certification an essential tool in working safely, sometimes the school and the teacher come to them.
Instruction cars are classrooms on wheels. They can take many forms, often converted from older passenger or freight cars, and can be used to teach many things. Some cars were more like lecture halls with rows of seating with a projector and large screen at one end. Others take a more hands-on learning approach with simulated locomotive control stands, brake equipment, safety devices and hardware. Having the classroom come to the workers is often much more effective educationally and monetarily than requiring employees from across a wide system to travel to a central training location.
Used most often by the railroad’s own employees, these cars sometimes serve a more public audience. Haz-Mat training cars travel the country today to teach first responders how to handle an accident on the rails. Familiarization with the types of fixtures they’ll find on a tank car can make a world of difference. Cars can also be used to show shippers the proper way to load, unload and secure their products as well as providing safety tips for working around rail equipment.
Similar to instruction cars, many railroads maintain an exhibit car for public outreach as well. Filled with information about the railroad’s history and business, the cars also do an important job in educating about safety around trains and tracks and even employment information. Part education, part marketing, these cars are often scheduled to visit communities or museums as part of larger events.
A classroom isn’t very useful without a teacher. In most cases today, the instructors travel separately from the cars and stay in local hotels. Some modern cars travel with an accompanying caboose, converted to an office for the instructor. It was common for older cars to include an office and living space for the instructor as well as the classroom space. Accommodations were basic but included a bed, sink and toilet, desk and limited personal storage space.
Equipment for the instruction cars often comes from retired revenue freight or passenger cars. Coaches, baggage cars, Railway Post Offices, boxcars, tank cars, flat cars and cabooses have all been used. Sometimes the conversion shows little change on the outside other than special paint and lettering.
Classes are usually held in or very near a large rail yard. Typically the car will be spotted on a little-used track near where the students can park and walk to the car without crossing active rails. “Blue flag” protection is used to make sure no other trains use the track while the cars are spotted there for class. Extra steps or ladders may be used to make it safer, especially for non-railroad employees, to get on and off the equipment. Typically the cars will be in town for a day or two so that multiple classes can be held, training or certifying everyone in that area. Then it’s off to the next yard or town.
Adding an instruction car to your model railroad could be a fun way to add a little variety to your rolling stock and create an interesting scene on one of your yard tracks. So look over your rule books and get your No. 2 pencils sharpened – school is on its way!