Virtual reality takes training into a new dimension
With the technology used to operate high-speed trains constantly changing, the methods to train those tasked with operating and maintaining this equipment is also shifting. David Burroughs reports from Spain on how technologies such as virtual reality is changing the way Adif trains its employees.
SINCE the first 417km high-speed line opened between Madrid and Seville in 1992, Spain has built a high-speed network that now spans more than 3240km from Figueres in the north to Seville in the south and Alicante in the east to León in the west. Of the 468 million passengers using Spanish railways last year, 36.5 million were on high-speed lines, with 52% of total rail passenger-km on high-speed. Helped by 98.5% punctuality, with 34% of traffic new to rail, the network is still growing with 2779km under construction or in the project stage and 1000km opening between 2015 and 2018.
As the network, now the largest in Europe, has expanded and developed, so too has the technology and equipment powering it. With more than 8000km of lines electrified, most of which is double-track, infrastructure manager Adif has more than 14,000km of overhead contact line and associated equipment such as substations and transformers to manage.
In Albacete’s Operation Control Centre (OCC), the “DaVinci” control system manages the 600km Madrid – Levante high-speed line, controlling trains on the Madrid – Cuenca – Valencia/Albacete – Alicante corridor.
DaVinci was developed by Adif to integrate the functions of Centralised Train Control (CTC), ERTMS control centres, energy supply, communications supervision of both fixed and mobile communications, video surveillance and auxiliary supervision systems for things such as wind alarms, fire detectors, trespassing protection, maintenance monitoring, and hot box detection as well as simulation and training, integrated reconstruction of events and validation and testing environments.
France-based Schneider Electric has provided all of the automation and traction switchgear used on Spain’s high-speed railway, while 80% of the electrical network on the high-speed lines are under Schneider Electric technology supervision and control. This includes more than 170 mainly 400kV, 2 x 60MVA electric substations and autotransformers, 2500km of overhead lines and three control centres.
Schneider has also developed the OASys supervisory control and data acquisition (Scada) system which feeds information into the DaVinci interface to remotely manage, control and troubleshoot the electrical grid that powers the high-speed network.
With the systems to operate, manage and diagnose a high-speed network becoming more sophisticated, the process of training new engineers is also keeping abreast with developments in technology.
The technology used for training in the modern day is what was once dreamed of by sci-fi writers and movie directors: virtual reality rooms, augmented reality-equipped computers and programs enabling students to assemble an entire catenary installation or control a mock-up of an electrical grid from within the classroom.
In the small Technological Training Centre beside the highway in Valencia, Adif has worked with Schneider Electric to create a modern training centre complete with an “immersion room,” augmented reality-equipped computers and the latest in computer-assisted learning.
The centre teaches courses on a wide range of subjects including engineering, projects and construction, management of operations and maintenance, infrastructure and track, transport and rolling stock, energy and safety facilities, telecommunications and information systems, and management of R+D+i technologies. The company first began exploring the use of computers to assist teaching in 1998 and has since developed technologies in a wide range of formats.
While the more traditional theoretical and practical methods of training still play a big part in the centre, a third method has now become an integral part of the training: virtual.
In the past, students would have had to head out into the field to visit the alternating current (ac) substations located at intervals of approximately 80km along the line, such as the one in Torrent which feeds the Valencia – Requena – Cuenca section and the Xativa branch of the Madrid – Valencia high-speed line. Now, they need only put on a specially designed virtual reality (VR) headset in the immersion room situated inside the training centre.
Three false walls have been erected inside the room to create an open cube where the students can move around, with the headset connected to a computer via a wire hanging from the roof. A kinetic system, similar to that used by Microsoft to create its Xbox Kinect gaming platform, detects the user’s movements and allows the student to walk inside the virtual substation. The user holds two devices similar to small paddles which also pick up movement and allow them to interact with the simulation. Using four projectors to display the simulation on the walls of the cube, tutors are able to follow, direct and test the students.
Adif shot video of the inside and outside of the substation, before rendering them to create the immersive digital twin the students are taught in. The process ensures all substation details are included in the program, meaning the students are taught in an authentic environment identical to the real railway.
Several exercises are performed in the virtual reality room. First, the students make a virtual visit to the substation in which they identify the elements with which they will have to operate later. After that, they will learn about the substation’s external area including voltage, current and power transformers.
In the control building, the student can find the control systems and protection elements, as well as the disconnectors of the gantry of the ac substation.
Once they are familiar with all the elements and their location, incidents are created in the substation for the student to solve. For example, in one scenario, students must make a voltage cut and check the line using a voltage absence detector. In another, they are put in control of a virtual catenary-mounting train, and must select the right options to install the equipment from scratch while the programme asks questions about each step.
In a separate training room, the students use augmented reality to interact with a computer program to learn how to assemble the various catenaries used on Adif’s network.
Using a computer simulation of the electrical system powering the Spanish high-speed rail network identical to the one used in the OCC in Albacete, students can learn to operate the system and identify and rectify faults without the pressure of working on an operational line. In the immersion room, multiple projectors can be used to create a large display of the network, giving students and tutors a view of how the program works and what is possible with it.
Hands-on experience is still a part of the training, and students must still know how to bolt together and install catenary elements, but instead of getting all students and tutors in one room to take the test, this can instead be done remotely, with a smartphone used for student – tutor communication.
As VR technology continues to develop, driven largely by the vast gaming industry, the manager in Adif’s technology training centre, Mr Francisco Javier Sánchez Bolumar, says they continue to develop means to integrate VR into the training programme.
While the current immersion room only has capacity for one student at a time, a larger room is currently under development which would allow multiple students to be involved in the same simulation. Reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s recent film Ready Player One, where the earth’s population interacts within a virtual world, Adif’s expanded simulation will allow students to work together on problems and solutions. The question now is what other sci-fi fantasy will be used to train students next.