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The strength of a new railway depends not only on fancy new infrastructure and trains, but on competent staff keeping things running smoothly at stations. To enhance its training programme, Elizabeth Line train operator MTR Crossrail looked to the world of virtual reality (VR) and introduced a platform simulator that will allow new employees to put their skills to the test in a computer-generated train station.
Built in conjunction with technology specialist Invirt Reality and using the HTC Vive VR system, the platform allows trainee staff to walk around and interact with objects using movements and arm gestures. Training is staged across a number of scenarios, from reporting faults on critical station equipment, to dealing with safety hazards that would be too dangerous to replicate in real life.
VR has already been deployed elsewhere in the rail industry, including numerous aspects of Crossrail’s construction. However, MTR Crossrail finance director Andy King says that the application of VR to station staff training is a leading step for the UK’s rail sector, and one that other operators might look to utilise in the future.
Joe Baker: What is the VR station concept, and how did it come about?
Andy King: In the rail industry, train drivers always have simulators where they combine virtual learning with real route learning. Our IT team was looking into whether we could introduce VR training for station staff.
We started to look at what we could use as a proof of concept which wouldn’t be replicating what we’ve already done. It would be an enhancement to training, as opposed to a novelty, and we struck on the idea of actually building a virtual station and using that as a platform for training.
Typically, staff will spend some time in a real station environment and they’ll do some classroom learning and that was about it. What we wanted to do is make something a bit more immersive and a bit more interactive for our staff.
There are some studies that demonstrate that VR use in training leads to a better retention of knowledge [amongst participants]. VR is more immersive and more involved, and so can actually can give you a bit more than ‘death by PowerPoint’ stuff. So we developed a bog-standard station, and then we started looking at different aspects from our business.
JB: What technology has been used, and how does the platform work in practice?
AK: The technology is quite simple; it’s an HTC Vive running on a PC in a room with a cohort of trainees. One person will be on the system and the others can actually watch what they are doing in it from a training point of view.
The HTC Vive is fully immersive, so you put on the headset and you’ve got a controller in each hand. There’s a small defined space you can walk around in, and you move with the avatar in the environment. If you turn, crouch down or stand up, the environment moves with you as if you were actually stood there. Using the controllers, you can see your hands in the environment, reach out, put a ticket through a ticket gate or pat a call button on a lift.
JB: Are the virtual station environments based on real stations?
AK: That’s a very interesting question! One of the ones we’ve got in there at the moment is based loosely on Seven Kings station. But one of the challenges we’ve got is whether we should build stations that replicate what we’ve already got in reality. If you do that, you might get some people who complain that things aren’t exactly right, and that could detract from the training, but on the flip side it would be quite good to train on a station where someone’s going to be based and actually have the right layout.
The key focus isn’t that you’ve got that bin or that poster board in the wrong place. We want people to really focus on the different scenarios they’ll come across so we’re trying to make generic stations based on one of ours – as opposed to a full replica of a station.
JB: What are the main safety/security issues covered in the training?
AK: Firstly, we’ve got some very customer-focused regimes in terms of what our stations look like, so we’ve got some really tight key performance indicators to make sure there’s no graffiti, rubbish or any of that stuff.
We’ve got faults that lie in the environment, so you’ll walk around, see something on the floor, and get a question popping up saying “what are you going to do?”. There’s a right answer and there’s plenty of wrong answers. You choose one and then you get marks off the back of that.
But then there are things that are less easy to do in a real environment. From a safety point of view we’ve got all sorts of common things, such as puddles of water, sharp objects and broken glass on the floor. In one of our scenarios there’s a bin on fire at the station.
You’ve also got behavioural things for passengers – there might be someone running on a platform – or someone walking round with a ladder when you’ve got wires overhead. We can put things in there that in reality are very unsafe, but you can actually do it in a safe environment where you can walk up to the avatar, question them, and figure out what’s the best course of action.
Then you have the security side, and the same premise applies. In a railway station, you’ve got different protocols for what’s hidden, obvious and typical. We’ve got certain security things in the environment – bags under benches, something hidden in a bush, those sorts of things. You need to walk through and ask whether it is something you’d typically expect to find.
JB: How will this be incorporated into