Telford developers using virtual reality to help train station staff
Virtual reality is being harnessed in all sorts of ways in modern business – and now a pioneering project from a Shropshire company is helping rail operators to train station staff across the network.
Telford-based VR Simulation Systems has been working with Arriva Trains Wales on a 'Rail Cave', which simulates life on a busy station.
It is used to train station staff to look out for safety issues such as left bags, people getting trapped in train doors, and drunks staggering towards the platform edge.
Staff are dropped into a virtual station and faced with different scenarios from platforms full of virtual commuters. In more extreme cases its virtual passengers are dragged down platforms by trains in an effort to demonstrate the reality of the need for safety.
After early success for the programme – including quickly training 300 staff ready for an influx of 80,000 football supporters for the Champions League Final in Cardiff back in May – it is now being picked up by other franchises after a grant from the Rail Safety Board helped develop the software.
Tim Luft, who runs the company at the University of Wolverhampton's Priorslee Campus in Telford, said: "We started off talking to Arriva about using virtual reality initially to help understand how they could use technology to solve their problems around how to train people in a more engaging way.
"When we looked at the statistics we realised most rail accidents happen on the platform. That's the most dangerous element of boarding and disembarking. It could be accidents, it could be suicides, it could be people getting trapped in the doors.
"We saw 332 people killed in 2016 on railway lines in the UK, and each railway company is spending £2 million a year on insurance claims for trips and slips. It's an expensive business, and safety is premier on the railways.
"This is about teaching people to spot things that happen before they occur, and whether they could intervene. Could they spot somebody acting suspiciously, or that are over the yellow line?
"That's where we had the idea of a simulator. We came up with this concept of a cave, a room within a room, where you can drop an individual in somewhere that feels realistic and simulate scenarios."
The simulation, which is projected onto three walls around the user, is modelled on different parts of the Welsh rail franchise, including the platform and roof from Shrewsbury and Hereford's ticket barriers.
It also adapts to different weather conditions, changes the rolling stock to exactly replicate that which is used by the company so station staff can be sure their training will transfer to the real world.
Mr Luft, who also runs virtual reality gaming company Woote from Telford Ice Rink, is now working with his team of developers to improve the product by adding things like gesture controls instead of games console controllers.
"We are building another generation at the moment that's more generic to any rail environment," he said.
"We will personalise it as every company wants its own rail stock in there."