To combat the growing number of collisions involving MetroRail, Houston's new 7.5-mile light rail system, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro) bought its first light rail simulator in April.
The simulator, built by FAAC Inc., is designed to help operators familiarize themselves with train controls and safety tactics.
Tom Greufe, Metro's director of safety and training, said MetroRail had been working with bus simulators for two years before FAAC Inc., based in Ann Arbor, Mich., approached with the idea of a light rail simulator.
MetroRail officials hope the light rail version, which train operators began using in May, will help reduce the collision rate.
More than 40 crashes have been recorded since the first rail line opened earlier this year. Most of the accidents have involved motorists turning left in front of trains.
"Our light rail system here is all street running, and we've had a number of issues with the public getting used to the fact that the train's running though intersections, and so we've had a significant number of collisions," Greufe said.
MetroRail is hoping the $490,000 simulator will turn out results similar to those of the bus simulators.
"We're seeing that our accident rate has dropped off tremendously, but we think that's more of a fact that we changed our light signaling," Greufe said. "The simulator increases our awareness, but what's really made a bigger effect is the fact that now the train is the only thing that gets the green light when it goes through the intersection."
Both trainees and current operators will be using the simulator — a carbon replica of the Siemens-built trains actually used. The computer-generated imagery represents real obstacles, and everything — signals, intersections, platforms — is a carbon copy of the real world, Greufe said.
Trainees using the simulator face stalled cars or malfunctioning signals and crossing arms, and even separately controlled virtual cars that make sudden left turns that can lead to accidents.
New operators will be trained for at least 10 hours in the simulator during an eight-week course. Existing operators will be trained for four hours in regular intervals.