Deutsche Bahn has its sights set on the future: virtual reality (VR) is now a well established and essential component of the Group’s vocational training and professional development, as well as its regular training for employees. Customer-specific training courses are already being used in various business units: for example, for diverse learning content relating to the ICE 4. Other training applications can also be rapidly implemented. To this end, DB Systel has developed EVE (Engaging Virtual Education), a virtual reality framework that provides the basis for implementing tailor-made learning applications. These activities have also attracted considerable attention outside the Group. When the learning concept was presented at IFA in Berlin at the end of August, almost all German national media reported on it.
And with good reason: EVE provides trainees with anywhere access to interactive 3D and VR learning content – with no waiting times or travel expenses. The practical training courses enable employees to act with confidence in complex work processes, even though no real-world equipment is used.
Fully digitised mechanical signal boxes
The latest learning content simulates a mechanical signal box in virtual reality and is used for quality assurance in initial and advanced training for signallers. “First and foremost, signallers are required to perform the safety-relevant actions – for example, by setting signals and points. But if a fault occurs in a signal box, the signaller must ensure continued operations by taking alternative steps,” explains Marc Schuchardt. The product owner is responsible for learning simulation at DB Netz AG (Regional route management). However, in peer-to-peer courses, it is difficult to provide signallers with initial and advanced training for older equipment designs, particularly for mechanical and electromechanical signal boxes. Several hundred of these signal boxes are still in operation throughout Germany. Although they are gradually being modernised or replaced, the process is progressing slowly. As a result, there is still a need, at least in the medium term, for appropriately trained specialist staff. However, it is not possible to provide training on faults, dangers and their impacts in a real-world environment and during live operations.
Signallers will continue to go through their customary training. But thanks to the VR simulation, this can now be enriched with additional practice at the advanced-training stage.
For this reason, the model station “Linksdorf”, which has no real-world equivalent, was transferred to virtual reality for simulation purposes. The aim is for the learning application to supplement existing initial and advanced training on mechanical signal boxes, ensuring that trainees can act with confidence. “Signallers will continue to go through their customary training. But thanks to the VR simulation, this can now be enriched with additional practice at the advanced-training stage,” says Marc Schuchardt. However, the simulation does not replace training using actual training signal boxes. One reason for this is that VR simulations occasionally reach their limits. “Not everything can currently be presented in a practicable way in VR. For example, it’s not yet possible to include work steps that involve writing things down by hand,” explains Stephan Hecker from DB Systel, who is responsible for the learning application on the development side.
It’s hard to imagine training without real signal boxes, but the VR signal box can enhance trainees’ basic understanding and better simulate the consequences of faults. “With the VR application, we primarily want to simulate faults that can’t be simulated in a real signal box. This provides signallers with the appropriate knowledge, no matter where they are, enabling them to respond correctly in such situations, for example,” says Stephan Hecker.
With the VR application, we primarily want to simulate faults that can’t be simulated in a real signal box.
The EVE Virtual Reality learning application will therefore enable practical training, including simulating faults and without the use of physical training signal boxes. “We had two visits to a signal box, where the Regional Manager for Operations explained to us the precise steps that a signaller would take to ensure normal operations,” says Stephan Hecker, explaining the development approach. Normal operations were simulated first, because this is highly complex from a functional point of view. Photos were taken on site, and the entire process was put down in writing. The material collected was initially used to build a 2D application for the tablet. “Actually, the application was just a working tool. But it seems we did such a good job on it that DB Training now plans to use it for training courses,” says Stephan Hecker.
In the resulting 3D application, the signaller uses special glasses to go directly into this virtual signal box, which does not exist in the real world. Sensors in the glasses react to every movement of the signaller’s head, giving users the impression that they are really in the signal box. Everything looks the same as in a familiar mechanical signal box and can be used accordingly. The controls are operated in the same way as in reality, and they trigger the relevant sequences of operations – with zero risk, because any faults merely result in operations coming to a standstill in the simulation
The entire signal box system, as well as all the dependencies between the model station and the neighbouring stations, was taken into account. Simulation of normal operations has already been completed. “The mandatory part is finished: We’re now in a situation where the signal box in the simulation works exactly the same way as its real-world counterpart,” says Marc Schuchardt.
By the end of the year, it will be possible to simulate faults. While employees undergoing training handle tasks in the virtual signal box, trainers can use a specially developed tablet application to trigger malfunction scenarios that need to be resolved. This enables signallers to act with greater confidence in the event of a fault, because training can be provided for every conceivable situation. For example, not only can operating elements on the station blocking system be made to malfunction; help for the learner can also be provided. This is displayed directly in the user’s field of vision, and realistic 3D audio makes for an even more immersive training experience.
The application is being implemented in a joint project involving close cooperation between DB Systel’s EVE and DB Netz AG’s Regional route management business segment, DB RegioNetz Infrastruktur GmbH and DB Training. By December of this year, the VR simulation should already cover normal operations and operation in the event of faults, making it available for an initial pilot project in 2019. This is further proof of just how innovative and trend-setting training is at Deutsche Bahn.