Herts Ad reporter takes test on Thameslink training simulator - fails

Herts Ad reporter Taylor Geall using Thameslink's brand-new train simulator in Crawley

Herts Ad reporter Taylor Geall using Thameslink's brand-new train simulator in Crawley - Credit: Archant

“It is an exact mock-up of the real train,” says Barry Thomas, Thameslink’s training simulator manager. “All the parts you see on the real train are replicated here, exactly – there’s no difference. The only difference is the windshield, which, as you might be able to tell, is not a real windshield; it’s a projector screen.”

The simulator – part of a £300 million collaboration between Siemens, VolkerFitzpatrick and Thameslink – is hidden behind an office at Thameslink Railway’s brand-new state-of-the-art train depot in Crawley.

The ‘dashboard’ is covered with an array of multi-coloured buttons, levers, switches, displays and pulleys. There are mock-windows to the left and right - small touches that add to the simulator’s realism.

I am parked at Mitcham Junction train station; it is raining. “Is this just stock English weather?” I ask.

Barry says: “This is the default weather. But anything you would expect in the real world, we replicate for training purposes: weather conditions, track conditions – that sort of thing.

“The route here is all the way up to West Hampstead, so it is a real route. It’s a real track with real scenery. Most of the drivers that come though here are really impressed with how realistic it is.”

Unfortunately, the simulator’s route does not yet include St Albans, but Barry tells me that every bush, every building and every signpost has been meticulously added to the journey, which was built using video footage.

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And it really works. As I pull the lever and accelerate out of the station, it only takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust before I feel the pseudo-sensation of movement.

Trees rush past and the track disappears beneath the cab. Barry switches on the snow and I fumble around for the wipers - which don’t seem to make a difference.

According to Barry, this route – the first and only - took six months to create.

“The reason this route has been done first,” Barry explains, “is because it’s going to be used for the ATO training further down the line – automatic train operation.

“The drivers will not be driving the train. It will be like the underground: you push the button and the train drives itself, opens the doors, stops for stations and red lights – the lot.”

So why build a simulator at all? Well, that automation will only be used during the high frequency services Thameslink are looking to introduce through central London – when the project is finished in 2018, commuters will be able to jump aboard one of the 24 hourly trains running between London Blackfriars and St Pancras.

At Herne Hill, I stop, open the doors and allow the passengers off, watching on the CCTV as the animated figures disembark and alight the train. I spot two men fighting on the platform.

“They’re having a little bit of fisticuffs,” says Barry. “You can actually have people stuck in the doors, too.

“As part of the training process we’re getting drivers to look through all the CCTV screens to ensure everyone is clear before moving off.”

At Loughborough Junction, I’m too busy asking questions to stop and accidentally speed though the platform. “They’ll have to get the next one,” I joke.

Barry says: “You’d lose your licence for that. You’re in a 30 now so you need to brake. In reality you might derail the train, but you can’t simulate a crash.

“The training process has moved on a lot. It used to be just chalk and talk and it was just about driving a train. It’s moved on to human factors now. For example: wrong side door release. How do you, as an individual, think you would manage risk? Because it’s down to you as a driver.”

Assuming the passengers will know not to jump on to the tracks is the wrong answer, apparently.

A queue of impatient journalists wait outside the simulator, so I get off at Farrindgon.

I thank Barry for the lesson and he says: “You’ve done really well there for a first-timer. Expect your licence in the post!”

I noted the sarcasm and carried on with my day job!