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Training in the virtual world

Stewart Thorpe tests out two of the latest virtual reality training tools


With a whistle pressed against my lips, I take one final look along the platform to check for any late running passengers. On this occasion, there aren’t any, so I signal with my baton and blast the whistle to safely dispatch the train. 

It’s not a particularly busy station, so far I’ve only had to deal with passengers asking for service information, but I need to remain vigilant. Potentially dangerous situations could unfold if I become distracted and fail to spot an intoxicated passenger or someone standing too close to the platform edge. Even worse, there might be someone looking to take their own life.

Yet, in reality, I’m not in a station – and I don’t even have a whistle. I’m actually stood inside a three-sided “CAVE” (cave automatic virtual environment) holding a games controller at Railtex. 

After working with operators Northern, Transport for Wales and Great Western Railway, Virtual Reality Simulation Systems (VRSS) is about to launch the second generation of its virtual reality (VR) training tool for train operators – which works just like a role playing video game. 

Simulation 

Using either the CAVE system or an Oculus VR headset, users step into this immersive world and into the shoes of either a conductor, member of station staff, driver or dispatcher.

Left to freely roam around stations and in trains that have been modelled on real world environments, they’re able to familiarise themselves with the exact sights and sounds they’ll experience on the job, all while testing out their skills and knowledge. 

Pre-selected inputs and the user’s actions will determine what happens in the virtual world, but they’ll also come across randomly occurring events. Changing weather conditions, the rush hour surge and on-board fires are an example of some the environment changes. 

Benefits

By playing out these job-based scenarios, users can be tested on what they have to do, what they have to keep an eye out for and what they have to think about to, for example, dispatch a train. 

At the end of each session, users are scored on how well they performed their duties, and this data is stored in VRSS’ content management system to track progress. 

VRSS’ system has obvious time and cost savings by bringing the training environment to the user, and significantly reduces safety risks by taking the member of staff out of the station environment. 

The tech firm also claims that those who use the simulator are able to more effectively carry out the ‘live task’ than those who go through more traditional methods of training. 

Lookout planning

VRSS wasn’t the only company promoting the use of VR for enhanced workforce training. 

Motion Rail, which featured in the March issue for its VR level-crossing scenario, demonstrated its ‘engineer scenario’ to RailStaff at Railtex. This tool assists in the training of on-site workers who are responsible for placing lookouts. 

Again, using a VR headset, the user is transported to the Severn Tunnel where they have to place five lookouts in locations so that, together, they have an unobstructed view of the up and down lines on a work site, all while being in a place of safety. 

With the recent rise in near misses on track, Motion Rail aims to increase workforce awareness of the appropriate amount of time needed to move out of the way when a train is approaching and, therefore, reduce the number of incidents.

Pushing the boundaries

The application of VR technology for training purpose has come far as innovators push the boundaries of what is possible. 

Rather than systems that only allow the user to explore virtual environments, companies such as VRSS and Motion Rail are creating immersive worlds that can also be interacted with. 

With more and more companies turning to VR to train their staff, it’ll be interesting to see how far the technology advances in the years ahead. 

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