More than a game: Light rail simulator provides opportunities for operators to hone skills

Austin Nettleton

Inside the Elati light rail facility, Light Rail Vehicle Instructor Art Scott sits in a windowless room in front of a wall of monitors. The monitors show various buttons, switches and levers below a 3D rendering of light rail tracks. Behind Scott, a rookie light rail operator steps into a small room with another instructor. This room holds a 1:1 scale custom-built exact replica of a light rail cab with every lever, button, switch, screen, pedal and mirror one would see in a vehicle on the line, surrounded by a 180-degree wraparound projection screen displaying the rendering Scott also sees at his desk.

This is RTD’s hidden secret for training its elite light rail operators – a fully operational simulator designed to throw everything an operator would experience out in the field their way.

Groundbreaking on the project began in 2012 out of a necessity to train operators on the basics of operating light rail, as well as introducing them to challenges they will experience while on duty in a safe environment.

“The simulator was created as a way to provide assisted training,” said Venessa Stone, Manager of Light Rail Vehicle Training. “Operators can make all the mistakes they want in here.”

All light rail operators are required to spend time in the simulator. Training opportunities vary depending on certain factors, such as their experience level and the time of year. During the upcoming summer disruptions, for example, operators will train on navigating the manual blocks that will be in effect. Operators can request additional simulator time at will, as long as a certified trainer is available.

RTD partnered with Oktal Sydac, a multinational corporation that designs simulators for railway, automotive and aeronautics organizations, to program the digital aspect of the simulator, while the two replica cabins were fabricated entirely in-house by RTD’s body shop.

“Originally, this was sent out to bid to an outside source, and the cost came back to be over $1 million,” Body Shop Supervisor Dan Ortega said. “Management then approached my team and I and asked if we could fabricate them to scale.”

Ortega, who oversees the bus side’s body shop at District Shops, was eager to put the team’s fabrication skills to the test with this new and unique challenge.

“We were given the freedom to build and create what was needed,” he said.

As the physical cabins were being fabricated, Oktal staff was busy riding the alignment, scanning every sign, building, crossing, road, switch, signal and bridge on each one of RTD’s light rail lines.

Representatives from Oktal rode along with light rail operators on the E, H, W, D and L lines, as well as the former C and F lines, using video cameras to capture and scan the environment as the train proceeded up and down the line. Oktal returned to scan the R Line after it opened in 2017. Using the footage captured, the company was able to create a virtual 3D-rendered environment that accurately represented each line, even down to slope angles.

The simulator takes into account the weight of each car, meaning the physics of the virtual train are dependent on how many cars are added to the virtual consist. The more cars there are, the heavier the virtual train is, thus impacting how it handles operating on the track, just as it does in real life.

Of course, it is not always sunshine and rainbows out on the track for operators, and the simulator can create the most intense and demanding scenarios to navigate. Scott does not hold back on throwing everything he can at operators. When operators are in the simulator room, they are in his domain.

Scott serves as the department’s equivalent of a “dungeon master,” a person who is the organizer in charge of creating the details and challenges of a tabletop roleplaying game. Scott has control over every scenario and can decide what obstacle the operator will overcome next.

“For summer classes, I like to throw in random snowstorms and winter weather events at new operators,” Scott said. “By the time they have completed training, they will be prepared to navigate fall snowstorms.”

One of Scott’s classes did just that.

“One class went out during a snowstorm later that fall and they didn’t get jittery,” he said.

At Scott’s fingertips lies a monitor loaded with a library of obstacles that he can drag and drop into the simulation in real time. He can add animals and pedestrians on or beside the tracks, create manual blocking zones, manipulate signals and switches, change the weather, dump inanimate objects on or around the tracks, set up work zones and issue flaggers.

“We can force operators to encounter things they probably will not encounter in real life,” Light Rail Training Instructor Brian Rothfuss said. “Additionally, we can drop in manual blocks and flaggers at switches, things operators will encounter out there.”

Manual blocks are sections of track between sets of switches where trains are temporarily diverted to the opposite track, usually used when crews are working on or very close to the tracks. These switches often need to be operated manually by maintenance of way crews.

“We can show operators where the crossover points for manual blocks are,” Light Rail Training Instructor Eric Mannes said.

Scott can see in real time what buttons, levers and switches the operator has activated or deactivated, allowing trainers to catch any mistakes in a safe and controllable environment, such as a foot that’s too far off the “dead man switch” or a door accidentally left ajar before leaving the station. Additionally, he can monitor the simulated train’s location on a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA)-like screen, like the one found at the Mariposa facility, but on a much smaller scale. The SCADA screen allows Scott to control upcoming switches and manual blocks, serving as a simulated controller communicating with the operator in the cabin.

Not only does the simulator serve as a training tool for navigating weather and obstacles, it also works as a familiarization tool with different zones and understanding information out on the track, as well as allowing operators to practice callbacks when controllers present instructions.

“It is really good to show new operators where the signals and switches are,” Scott said.

In the cab, operators have a replica communicator that allows them to hail Scott, who plays the role of a controller. When there are issues on the virtual track or if the operator is approaching a flagged section with workers present, such as a manual block or crossing gate malfunction, the operator and Scott can communicate with each other, giving operators practice on reporting issues and how to properly respond to instructions given by controllers.

These features have been helpful for both new and veteran operators preparing for the upcoming downtown rail reconstruction and coping panel projects, as they can get an understanding for what navigating the two construction projects will be like with the manual blocks in place.

After the simulator’s launch in 2015, it became a focal point for agencies visiting RTD looking for new solutions to train their operators. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) took it one step further and used RTD’s simulator as a blueprint for designing its own simulator.

The success of light rail’s training simulator has inspired N Line Commuter Rail Transportation to build one of their own.

“We began discussing obtaining a simulator prior to the beginning of revenue service in 2020,” Manager of Rail Service Delivery Phil Washington said.

The simulator is being designed by CORYS Inc. Hardware design is wrapping up, and software design will begin in the upcoming weeks.

Like the light rail simulator, the N Line simulator seeks to be as realistic as possible to provide trainees with the tools they need when encountering the same situations out on the line.

“Software design finalization will consist of a review of the virtual assets that will be displayed and used within the simulator, and will ensure those assets are as real as possible,” Washington said.

Washington is optimistic the simulator will be fully operational by early 2025. It will be located in the 711 building, where N Line operations are currently based.

One unique thing about the N Line simulator is engineers will be able to earn and recertify their 240 certifications within the simulator. Additionally, hours spent in the simulator by student engineers will count towards their on-the-job hour requirement toward certifications.

RTD’s investment into simulator technology is another testament to the agency’s mission of making lives better through connections.

By Austin Nettleton

Simulator photos