Andy King describes how MTR Crossrail uses virtual reality technology to enhance its training procedures, ready for the opening of the Elizabeth line

Using virtual reality (VR) environments for training can be seen – and turn into – a gimmick. As an alternative to whiteboards and sticky notes, the headsets and haptic gloves create an instant buzz and easy engagement, at least on the surface.

The use of VR software for training needs to be driven by clear-thinking and hard decisions. That means taking time to ensure integration with training and development needs as a starting point, the tangible opportunity to enhance and supplement the existing training offering. And then reviewing purpose and what will be delivered in terms of skills and knowledge continually throughout the trial and design stages. VR has to work for the business in practice and for the long-term rather than being a temporary thrill.

Training traffic challenge
At MTR Crossrail, there was a core challenge that VR could address. London’s new Elizabeth line will be fully open from December 2019: 41 stations, 200 million passenger journeys each year – and one major challenge when it comes to keep training a stream of large numbers of new recruits to be sharp-eyed, confident and capable when it comes to the most important issue of all for the industry, station safety and security. The demands of operating a service on such as large scale means that a large amount of recruitment and training has to be undertaken and various regimes and behaviours need to be communicated in a way that is both engaging and able to be retained.

While using VR simulators for driver training is the norm, the organisation has taken this further by making use of a fully-immersive virtual station. The VR station helps overcome the problem of how to re-create dangerous situations without having to take any risks or causing any disruption to operations in real stations.

Many organisations have introduced gamification and virtual environments, a ‘VR Room’ which involves large screens in a room to mimic a different environment. The difference with the VR station approach comes with using the HTC Vive equipment, where staff are immersed in situations – not just watching a screen – and need to interact with the virtual world, using a headset and a controller that’s operated by movement and gestures.

Virtual station solution
An initial trial was carried out to develop a tool focused on making employees more vigilant in identifying and reporting various KPI faults at their station, increasing passenger satisfaction and improving service. As the product moved closer to completion, it became apparent there were wider opportunities from introducing VR training. The base build was expanded to create a more immersive environment for the trainee, not only asking them to highlight KPI faults, but also safety alerts, customer interactions and security protocols.

The environment encourages staff to explore and monitor the complete station world, just as they would in their day-to-day role, creating a stronger sense of real situations and pressures rather than contrived, tick-box exercises. Users are able to physically walk around as well as see and touch things in a station environment along the actual Elizabeth line route. The 50 different scenarios range from reporting faults on critical station equipment, applying safety protocols for unattended luggage and dealing with a potential safety hazard such as a broken window. The users can then navigate the environment and makes decisions using the gesture-controlled system. Delivering training this way provides more of a record for future learning, a guide to where training needs to be focused and ways to improve safety and security. The platform allows employees to explore the learning themselves, with the ability to play back their session and feedback on it with managers.

So far, the training has been rolled out to over 150 customer experience employees since the end of 2017, with plans for the VR station to be used as a mainstay of induction for new staff and meeting changing needs. There’s been a different level of interest and engagement by comparison with traditional training. People have talked in terms of enjoying the experience, of wanting to learn more, of seeing and thinking about the station workplace differently as a result. Deconstructing complex – and sometimes hazardous – situations has reportedly led to a sharp rise in levels of confidence in dealing with safety incidents, more clear thinking and quicker responses.

The project has shown us how innovation in training can have business impact – in staff engagement, in building a culture of safety that’s critical to meeting the organisation’s KPIs, and ensuring we’re delivering for customers. It’s also a significant step in terms of demonstrating the commitment to safety and security among external audiences and stakeholders. The response from staff and managers means the organisation is now currently working with developers to see where we could deploy this type of training to other areas of the business – keeping relevance and value in mind – including plans for a VR Dragon’s Den to help staff with their public speaking skills, especially when dealing with senior management and external stakeholders.

Andy King is Finance Director at MTR Crossrail. MTR Corporation (Crossrail) Limited will be the operator of the new Elizabeth line, having been awarded the concession by Transport for London (TfL). The route will pass through 41 stations from Reading and Heathrow in the west, through new tunnels to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. The vision of MTR Crossrail is to set a new transport standard for the UK, moving people and connecting communities better than anyone else.