Special to Passenger Transport
Everyone knows that practice makes perfect, but practicing under the right conditions can be a challenge for bus and rail operators. Increasingly, public transportation systems are turning to technology for answers.
These days, public transit operators are as likely to step into a box that looks as if it belongs in a video arcade as they are to sit in a training classroom or even get behind the wheel in real-road conditions. Training simulators are not new, but emerging technologies have allowed them to provide increasingly lifelike conditions.
For example, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) in Urbana, IL, began using two FAAC Inc. simulators in its training in 2010. “It’s taken two years, but I believe the training simulators were fully integrated into MTD’s training program at the start of 2012,” said Jim Dhom, MTD’s safety and training director.
Dhom and his trainers use these advanced, computerized training systems to simulate driving challenges without suffering real-life consequences. MTD representatives worked with the manufacturer to create a world that replicates some conditions specific to its service area, such as narrow campus streets, tricky one-way roads in the downtown area, flurries of pedestrians, and growing numbers of bicyclists.
“When I started in this position in 2004, people in their first year of employment accounted for 35 percent of our total accidents,” Dhom said. “In 2012, that number went down to 10 percent.” Total accidents also declined 26 percent in 2012 compared to 2011, he added.
“The germ of the idea was actually more safety-oriented than sustainability-oriented. The sustainability side of it was more of a happy coincidence—though it ended up being a fairly prominent aspect,” said Karl Gnadt, MTD’s director of market development.
“We’re saving resources with these exercises, but we’re also better preparing new people before we up the ante,” said Dhom. “When they make a mistake, we can play it back for them. You can’t do that in a bus.”
Dhom and his trainers learned to write scripted exercises of their own in addition to using scripts supplied by FAAC. New employees use the simulators to perform pre-trip inspections, road training, and mirror setup, and to learn pivot points, turn radius, and bus controls. MTD procedure requires that trainees go through six bus preparation exercises before stepping inside a real bus. As trainees progress in the program, they must respond to a mechanical problem and adjust to extreme weather. Finally, near the end of training, they must handle a customer service exercise.
MTD also uses the simulators to conduct annual operator reviews and individual accident reviews, and is considering using them as a pre-employment tool to screen job candidates for basic driving and listening skills.
The simulators do have a few drawbacks. Some trainees experience motion sickness, nausea, and headache. Dhom and his trainers watch trainees for negative reactions—perspiration, belching, and irregular breathing—and limit the exercises to 10 to 15 minutes, keep the training room at 68 degrees, and make sure they always have ginger ale on hand.
“We’ve found that exercises with lots of turns and frequent mirror use can make things worse,” Dhom said. “Usually older people are the most affected.”
Dhom recommended the training simulators to other public transit agencies, but advised that the technology demands human support: “You need staff that are comfortable with technology and have some computer expertise. Dedicated staff people are needed to fully utilize the technology.”
Photo: Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District
An employee of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District uses a simulator as part of the training process, while another employee supervises.