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Buzzer in Chicago: Train simulators!

Buzzer in Chicago: Train simulators!

We got to try out Metra’s train simulators on a technical tour yesterday! (I’m in Chicago for the APTA rail conference this week, if you didn’t know.)

Metra is Chicago’s commuter rail service, similar to WestCoast Express. They have five simulators that replicate each of their different train types, to teach new engineers how to drive.

And man, these things are awesomely real. Check out the video and watch how the views in the front and side windows all move seamlessly together. There’s even a rearview mirror, replicating exactly what you’d see behind you! (Tom, an instructor from Metra is the one talking.)

If you’re curious, SkyTrain has simulators for both MK I and MK II cars – I haven’t been down to try them yet, so I don’t know how similar they are to the Metra ones.

Here’s another video of us cooking along at a much faster speed. Bill Knight, our community relations coordinator is in the engineer’s seat (you might remember him from the TransLink in TV & film posts).

Yours truly driving the 1970s train. Yep, that's the back of my head, but you gotta keep your eyes on the road, you know?
Yours truly driving the 1970s train. Yep, that's the back of my head, but you gotta keep your eyes on the road, you know?

In the video, Bill’s driving the oldest type of vehicle that Metra runs, which dates back to the 1970s. The cab we’re in is an identical copy of the existing train cab. And the route is a computer-generated replica of Metra’s routes.

The routes are essentially identical, too: film footage was shot of every single Metra route, which was then converted to computer graphics (495 miles serving 230 stops!).

The simulators were completed in 2007, and now help train many more engineers. Before, only a single training car could give hands-on experience to one person at a time.

Okay, in this video we’re driving in Metra’s newest train car! And check it out — we’re driving through snow!

The touch screen that lets you access and examine other parts of the train, simulating a real breakdown on the tracks.
The touch screen that lets you access and examine other parts of the train, simulating a real breakdown on the tracks.

The simulator can replicate all kinds of weather, plus all kinds of technical breakdowns and other situations you might encounter on the rails. (Instructors can watch all your movements and gauges from consoles outside the simulator.)

There’s also a touch screen on the wall of each cab that lets you examine the different areas of the train — so if your train breaks down, you can look to find the damaged part or incorrect setting, fix it if possible, and get back on track.

(Here’s a good video that demonstrates how the scenery moves seamlessly in the front and sides. Watch the people on the platform in the front window– they show up in the side view afterward!)

I found that these simulators showed just how hard it is to drive a train. One of the other instructors even said he found it easier to get a pilot’s license than qualify for train operation.

For the most part, you have to work an air brake and a throttle together to manage your speed during the journey, and it’s a weird delicate dance to get them to operate together smoothly and land at a station properly!

There’s also all kinds of gauges to pay attention to, signals and speed signs on the track to watch for, and other concerns.

The dead man's switch on the 1970s train. Keep your foot on it!
The dead man's switch on the 1970s train. Keep your foot on it!

In addition, there are numerous failsafes to make sure engineers stay alert, and to make sure the train is safe if something happens to the driver.

Here’s the dead man’s switch, which is a pedal you have to keep your foot on while driving the train. If you collapse or something and your foot goes off, the train will come to a stop.

As well, a bunch of annoying flashing lights and noises go off periodically if you haven’t touched any of the controls in a while. You just have to hit a button to stop them, but it’s another way to help you stay awake and responsive.

And let’s cap this off with this last video:

Look how quick that weather changes! Kind of reminds me of Vancouver :)