Locomotive engineer Jose Dominguez pulls back on the master controller to accelerate his Metra Electric train out of downtown Chicago.
Before he gets too far, fog rolls in, obscuring his view of a signal, the tracks and the overhead wires. As he inches forward, the green light emerges in the haze. Dominguez radios to a control center to indicate he has a green signal and will proceed to his next stop.
About 15 feet outside the engine room door, Bob Tague clicks a mouse on a computer monitor.
The fog in front of Dominguez dissipates.
Although fog and other elements can create a real challenge for engineers, the kind in this scenario is entirely fake. It’s one of several surprises trainers can spring on student engineers in Metra’s train simulators.
New Metra engineers must spend at least two weeks training on one of Metra’s train simulators, machines built to expose engineers to the conditions they will face on the rails before they ever carry a passenger.
“The main advantage of having this is safety. I can challenge you to apply the rules without ever jeopardizing any passenger’s safety,” said Tague, Metra’s Director of Training and Certification. “If you make a mistake here, it can be reviewed, discussed, trained on. You can do all of this and it never questions passenger safety on the train.”
Metra has five half-cab simulators, with a control panel in each that is an exact replica of the different types of engines operating on Metra’s lines. The views outside the front and side cab windows are also as realistic as possible for the time the system was developed. When the system was being built in 2006, a vendor recorded the outbound and inbound trips on the lines Metra owns and operates: the Milwaukee West and North, the Rock Island, the Heritage Corridor, the North Central Service, the SouthWest Service and the Metra Electric. Those videos were used to create computer graphics of the tracks and surrounding areas, which are projected onto a screen in front and on the side of the engineer. An upgrade debuting this summer will make the graphics even more realistic and replace the projectors with 80-inch TV screens.
Four trainers, including Dominguez, guide engineers through simulator training. Engineers with experience at a freight or another commuter railroad are required to complete two weeks of training with the simulators, while trainees who have never been a certified engineer must complete four weeks. All trainers must be certified locomotive engineers themselves.
Student engineers tackle different scenarios they’ll encounter during their jobs, said Marty Fitts, Senior Director of Training and Certification. Those scenarios might include workers on the tracks, a problem with the engine or a malfunctioning crossing gate. Each session is recorded and scored.
“Here we can emulate a scenario over and over and over again to get it right,” Fitts said. “Out in the field, there’s no second chance.”
Student engineers start out slow, on what’s called a “green trip” because of the experience level of the engineer, as well as the signals encountered. Session by session, new challenges appear, until the student completes a rush-hour run.
After their simulator training is complete, student engineers practice on an instructional train without passengers, then move on to spend 25 weeks on revenue trains with engineer trainers on the various lines.
The Federal Railroad Administration has stringent guidelines that have to be followed in order for an engineer to be certified. Metra’s training program, including the use of the simulators, is approved by the FRA and exceeds their guidelines. The simulators also come into play for engineers who need remedial training or those who need to be re-certified. (The Federal Railroad Administration mandates re-certification take place every 36 months.)
In the coming years, the simulators will be used extensively for training on Positive Train Control, a computerized system that prevents certain types of train-to-train collisions, helps avoid derailments and other accidents caused by excessive speed and increases safety for railroad workers.
Fitts said Metra has seen a reduction in rule violations since the simulator became part of Metra’s training program in 2008. Beyond safety and easing the transition from training to the field for the engineer, the simulator also makes the ride better for Metra passengers.
“It provides the customers with a nice smooth ride that is very safe,” Fitts said. “When the student is out training with the engineer, he’s not trying to figure out the brake handle and how the braking system works. We teach them all that here.”