Route Familiarisation with Drone Video: Why It Does Not Work.

Last Updated on August 19, 2023

In discussions with a major railway operator in Australia, the Head of Training and capability development for rail training had the idea to use drones to capture footage of the new railway, save some dollars, and familiarise their staff ahead of time.

Unfortunately the approach didn’t work, with a highly unsatisfactory product unable to be used in route qualification induction training. This caused many issues for the operator who had to bring over 750 staff up to speed quickly.

What’s the Cost of Not Having the Right Route Induction Tools?

The cost of not having professional route competency training tools is very high to the network and to the construction team.

The construction team can lose 12-14 weeks from their programme in training for route familiarisation. Train drivers need to learn the new layout, new track, the inclines, declines, whistle boards, signalling arrangements and so on in order to operate the section of track safely, with both competence and confidence.

Curtailing route induction has dramatic risks including safety for operators and passengers and scheduling and network operations on time running.

This operator has given examples where train drivers have literally stopped their trains in operating services, and refused to run a section of track due to their lack of confidence from insufficient training. This has dramatic consequences on the network.

By sharing these learnings, we hope we can spare you the difficulties and troubles in trying to take shortcuts to your training and people readiness in route qualifications.

Permission to fly drones over railways and worksites is a major issue, amongst others. This is one of the reasons using drone footage is not as easy as it sounds for route familiarisation.

The Reality of Drone Video for Route Qualifications – Lessons Learned

The Head of Training engaged the best drone operator they could find in the city of a million people.

The mission was to capture the track alignment at the critical moment of earliest possible ‘completion’ with the elements being in place (signals, signage etc), and early enough to be able to be processed for use in route competency training – typically starting 4 weeks before the track opens.

Finding this exact time is in reality very difficult. Because construction happens in its own way, impacted by extraneous forces including design, delivery supply, weather, and may have many on site elements including temporary works, plant and equipment – then trying to organise for everything to be ‘ready’ and ‘in place’ some 6 weeks ahead of schedule to allow for the video capture, then processing and editing, approvals and then setup for the intense training program – was very difficult.

Nonetheless the Training Manager coordinated the huge number of elements across the construction alliance to achieve a ‘reasonable’ representation of the final outcome, requesting plant and hoardings to be moved for this drone capture day.

Weather had some impact, because you are capturing real footage in the real world, both the right time of day and the right weather are important to best reveal and display the information. Too much bright sun creates deep shadows over elements, rendering them difficult to read, and of course rain and wind make drone capture difficult.

The drone operator and the drone itself then needs special railway worksite access. This is not easy to achieve and takes considerable paperwork and delay. In this case an exception had to made at the Training Manager’s risk to have track and worksite access. This also meant a high level of coordination to ensure construction staff were not on site for safety reasons with drones flying overhead. That’s a lot of admin and coordination.

Nevertheless, this high performing Training Manager, managed all these elements and after a lot of work managed to achieve two days worksite and track access, roughly at the right time in the construction phase. Thankfully the weather was reasonable and the training team rationalised that the missing elements in the construction could be ‘explained’ in the classroom training sessions they anticipated.

Now they were onsite, the drone operator found it very difficult to follow the track profile, and could not reliably replicate the ‘position of the train drivers’ view’. This train driver’s position is about 2m above the track, depending on the train, and is sometimes offset from the track centreline or running rail, again depending on the rolling stock in question.

The video footage was high resolution, but the confidence to use it for the reasons of head position and completion of the works themselves rendered the entire exercise a waste of time. “It didn’t work at all”.

Railway Route Induction Familiarisation Cinematic Experience
Railway Route Induction Familiarisation Cinematic Experience is standard with Urban CGI, including all angles, external and internal to the cabin, for deep route knowledge. Available offline and online for repeat and perpetual re-accreditation.

What’s needed for Good Route Qualification Offline Training?

In good route qualification training material, we overlay a huge amount of information, including our unique ‘inclinometer’ with double readout of inclines, track speed, but also every level crossing, passenger crossing, whistle and speed board, of course signal name.

We also simulate the exact acceleration and deceleration of the rolling stock, include the horning or whistle with realistic audio at the exact right moments, plus the exact future layout of the rail corridor including vegetation, signal boxes, CSRs, substations and stations.

The Training Manager and their team expressed in good Aussie lingo how difficult the process was, and how it let them down.

They then had to run a “Human Free” (HF) Train on the track and try to get all 750 drivers onto this train. The drivers who couldn’t make the HF Train day then literally stopped in their tracks during timetabled services and refused to drive that section of track – causing enormous service disruptions. To ease this pressure, the operator needed to place ‘route qualified’ drivers and trainers at critical spots on the network to guide, advise and tutor the train drivers. This cost “a significant amount of money” and a huge amount of reputational impact and administration.

The operator has converted to a ‘reliable and flexible route familiarisation tool to support efficient route competency training’ as well as to be used for signal sighting approvals – the Urban CGI simulations meet all their needs, and make it easy.

Contact us today to learn more.