Evacuation simulations: Rail emergency preparedness training for employees

Emergency preparedness training forms a vital part of many industries. Natural disasters, public health emergencies and industrial accidents are just a few circumstances in which robust response protocols are essential. The transportation industry is no exception. A high proportion of injuries and deaths result from transportation-related incidents in Australia,[i] making emergency preparation a priority. Rail emergency response plans, in particular, require detailed foresight due to the complexities of railway infrastructure, the limited manoeuvrability of trains, the risk of secondary hazards, and the challenges of managing passenger safety in remote or inaccessible locations.

Emergency simulations can play an integral role in this preparation. Technology opens the way for developing new means of planning and training, especially in complex railway scenarios. Railway companies are increasingly dependent on emergency evacuation simulations to prepare employees for disasters, especially in developing new projects. This article details how CGI simulations can efficiently and effectively prepare staff to manage and mitigate railway emergencies.

Emergency response training in railway: an introduction

Railway disaster response training typically involves meeting regulations that encompass prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. For example, Australia’s Rail Safety National Law details how responsibility is shared, from rail operators to manufacturers to the public.[ii]

‘Prevention’ involves implementing appropriate methods for railway disaster management, such as maintaining infrastructure and supporting community safety initiatives. ‘Preparedness’ mandates that there are procedures in place so that employees understand what must be done and by whom when an incident arises. This involves responses implemented within the emergency, with ‘recovery’ during the immediate aftermath. The use of specialised equipment, communication strategies, evacuation plans, and shutdown procedures are just a few examples of details that are considered while preparing for response and recovery.

Employers are responsible for equipping employees with the knowledge and training needed to face an emergency when it arises. This training involves extensive education, time, and resources; it must be effective while not cutting corners in any way. This gap is being bridged by technology.

Emergency response team training: first responders survey an accident
Emergency response team training is essential for ensuring that employees and first responders know what actions must be taken in the event of an accident. This involves assessing the environment, mitigating hazards, guiding evacuation, and providing medical assistance.

Emergency evacuation plans: the advantage of digital simulation

Evacuation preparedness is one part of disaster resilience. Employees must know how to conduct a responsive and safe evacuation operation, prioritising the well-being of passengers, staff, and community members. It is essential that emergency evacuation training takes into account the various conditions in which an emergency may arise so that employees can adapt and determine the safest way to evacuate people from the scene.

Evacuation modelling software is a useful tool in this regard. A digital simulation mimics potential disaster scenarios in a controlled and resourceful way, allowing staff members and responders to efficiently learn how an emergency might unfold and what must be done. Different train configurations, environmental conditions, and passenger loads can all be digitally replicated, enabling staff members to not only be equipped with the best possible training but to feel confident in their abilities to make life-changing decisions and act quickly should an emergency occur.

Disaster simulations provide a highly efficient means of training employees. Simulations can also strengthen the crisis intervention capabilities of different stakeholders, including emergency services, railway operators and government agencies. The absorption of information occurs at impressive rates with the involvement of 3D realistic graphics, saving already limited time and resources, delivering an accurate, real-time walkthrough of processes and plans without viewers having to travel to sites or experience hazardous situations first-hand. Once an animation has been created, it can also be used countless times. All recipients, from trainees to stakeholders, receive the same information and understanding. The investment return is significant.

Train evacuations, derailments, crashes, and collisions

While railway accidents are relatively uncommon, they are serious events demanding extensive training and planning to mitigate consequences should one occur. And when they do occur, they can have significant impact – including the loss of hundreds of lives, high levels of injury, high asset and repair costs, loss of confidence in operators and institutions, and ongoing disruptions.

Derailments can result from track defects or failures, mechanical malfunctions (such as issues with the brakes or wheels of the train), human errors (such as improper switching or speed limit breaches), and environmental factors (such as heavy rain or high winds) that can impact the stability and functioning of the track.

The development of strategies to improve railway safety has meant that the number of train derailments per year has declined in recent history. Statistics show that this improvement has been occurring since the 1980s, with fatalities also decreasing.[iii] This progress owes much to the expansion of our technological capabilities, such as new equipment, track infrastructure, and monitoring systems.

While the frequency of train disasters has reduced significantly, accidents can and do still happen. For example, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that a total of 812 cases of serious unintentional injury involving a railway train occurred across a 5-year period in Australia, the most happening in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales.[iv] Although derailment incidents have declined with developments in rolling stock and infrastructure, sophisticated emergency response plans and disaster management remain vitally important.

Luckily, technology streamlines this area of rescue and evacuation training, offering precise and detailed simulations of the emergency response. Train evacuation modelling can communicate potential dangers and illustrate the quickest routes to safety from evacuation zones. Derailment exercises, which require intensive resources when carried out as in-person practical drills, can be effortlessly conducted in a virtual setting. Digital models allow trainees to develop a sophisticated understanding of how to execute a full evacuation of staff and passengers in diverse scenarios. Furthermore, simulations let staff experience a realistic replication of the environment and derailment impact zone under different lighting and weather conditions, something that just is not possible in other forms of emergency training – no matter the time and resources expended.

Visualising the environment and knowing what lies beyond one’s immediate line of sight is essential during high-risk emergency situations. This is one of the unrivalled advantages offered by advanced simulation-based training.

The damage of a head-on collision train crash in Australia
One consequence of train derailments is head-on collisions, which can damage infrastructure and inflict severe trauma and fatal injuries to passengers and pedestrians. These kinds of train crashes require immediate and effective response strategies to minimise further damage and injury at the scene.

Level crossing accidents

Rail crossing accidents can be catastrophic due to their involvement with pedestrians and road vehicles. These incidents can happen very quickly and in several different ways. Because these accidents often involve injuries and fatalities, a coordinated response plan with prioritised steps is important.

Simulations can accustom trainees to react appropriately in the aftermath of accidents, guiding them to respond efficiently to the particular circumstance. Simulations can also help identify the means by which these types of accidents often occur – such as driver or pedestrian distraction, impatience, or mechanical barrier malfunctions – enabling preventive measures to be developed.

An example of how traffic incident management training
This is an Urban CGI image of a level crossing. Many jurisdictions are implementing level crossing removal projects as a strategy to minimise accidents; however, the removal takes considerable time and expense, and level crossings are still prevalent in many cities. Traffic incident management training is thus essential, considering the many recorded instances of traffic-related railway disasters.

Natural disasters – derailment due to blocked, submerged, or deformed tracks

Natural disaster training is a significant part of preparing for emergencies. Train derailments can occur when tracks get blocked due to landslides, floods, heavy snow, or other extreme weather events. Tracks can also deform or twist during heat waves or earthquakes. These outcomes can only be mitigated to a certain point, necessitating that staff be trained appropriately, should such an unfortunate event occur.

The use of 3D simulations to communicate different kinds of derailment scenarios is highly conducive to learning. Realistic, 3D visualisations are one the closest ways you can get to putting your employees in the situation itself. Virtual models not only offer the ability to run through how to behave in a high-risk scenario but take into account the factors that are unique to each situation.

A natural event disturbs everyday rules and procedures; simulations help employees remain calm and adaptable, learning to follow emergency protocols when the stakes are high. CGI training helps staff balance the many considerations that arise during a disaster, helping staff to assess risks, identify and prioritise challenges in the environment, determine resource needs, and initiate a comprehensive evacuation plan. Practising emergency responses within a real-time 3D digital platform also allows staff to receive immediate feedback and improve upon their responses.

Crew clear rocks on railroad tracks
Landslides are a common form of natural disaster, often resulting in the complete coverage of a train track with rocks and debris. These situations necessitate speedy action and communication to prevent a collision or derailment.
An emergency evacuation due to snow on railroad tracks.
Weather extremities can be sudden and unpredictable. In cases such as heavy snow on railroad tracks preventing a train from running safely, an evacuation may be necessary.

Rail bridge failures

Railroad bridge accidents can occur due to structural defect, damage, or collapse – as might happen when part of the structure subsides or washes away in a flood. These rare events pose a severe risk to train operators, passengers, and the integrity of the rail network, necessitating training in the form of major emergency simulation exercises.

Simulations can model individual bridges using accurate data from LiDAR scans and other sources, providing staff with context-specific training for the actual environment in which they work. CGI technology also proves invaluable for planning and constructing railway bridges, ensuring risks are minimised from the design phase.

A railroad bridge disaster resulting in major damage.
Railroad bridge disasters are uncommon but highly dangerous. Storms, in particular, can cause the wreckage of railway infrastructure.

Train derailments with chemical spills

Train derailments are a risk in and of themselves, but a train derailment with toxic chemicals presents immense, long-lasting dangers to people and the environment. Environmental impacts can include water contamination, air quality concerns, loss of biodiversity, acid rain, pollution, and many more widespread and long-term effects. This means that a train derailment clean-up plan must be developed and understood well in advance by employees.

Example:

The complex effects of a chemical spill can be understood by looking at a railroad disaster that occurred in February 2023. A train travelling interstate in the US derailed, causing a mass evacuation of residents in the area with the risk of an explosion due to the hazardous chemicals carried. Many train cars were transporting the highly flammable vinyl chloride, a chemical used in the production of plastic products. This was released from the train cars to avoid contact with fire in the aftermath of the crash. Exposure to high levels of this chemical can be fatal and is linked with liver cancer. Residents subsequently reported symptoms of nausea and a burning of the eyes, despite investigations deeming that the exposure level was safe.

Chemical spillage training can encompass a wide range of toxic substances and their risks, including liquefied chlorine gas, hydrochloric acid, and petroleum products (the substances commonly involved in oil spills). This kind of specialised training educates staff about the risks of each substance and guides appropriate action, such as immediate evacuation due to the risk of an explosion or containment of the spill or leak so as to prevent environmental degradation.

Trainees must also know where to locate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as hazmat suits, and how to properly wear these to prevent contact with toxic substances – as well as familiarising themselves with any other sanitary facilities and procedures. Safely navigating a contamination zone following derailment is a complex feat, but this can be practised and rehearsed in advance via simulation.

Hazardous waste operations and emergency response after a train derailment chemical spill
Hazardous waste operations and emergency response: PPE (personal protective equipment) is often an essential element of a train derailment chemical spill, with responders at risk of coming in direct contact with hazardous materials, either in the air or on the ground. This is a highly specific form of emergency response and requires thorough training.

Fires and explosions

Train fires and explosions can occur due to technical faults, collisions, derailments, and so on. These benefit from detailed evacuation simulations, accommodating the movement of large numbers of people. Fire safety and rescue training for employees requires highly adaptable and flexible procedures. A fire exit plan should have appropriate fire escape pathways illustrated, allocating roles and responsibilities within the employee team to safely evacuate passengers from the train.

Digital evacuation simulations extend previous forms of crisis simulation training and allow for 3D fire evacuation modelling to more accurately encompass the complexities of crises. Real-time replications of an emergency response also enable decision-makers to easily analyse the success rates of fire emergency evacuation strategies. The movement of people and vehicles can be simulated, allowing managers to identify issues with evacuation plans and rectify these to produce the most effective response.

A train fire incident requiring an evacuation drill
Train fire incidents can happen suddenly and mandate immediate and effective evacuation. Fire evacuation drills help prepare for this eventuality.

Railway tunnel evacuations

Emergencies within railway tunnels involve extra considerations, with fewer exit points, a need for emergency lighting, and the potential for higher concentrations of smoke and fumes due to the lack of open air.

The structural characteristics of railway tunnels also complicate evacuation procedures. For example, long parallel tunnels may have cross passages designed to provide safe passage from one tunnel to the other.

During the design and development of new railway tunnels, there is often budgetary pressure to reduce construction and maintenance costs. One of these costs can be the construction of cross-passages for safety evacuation reasons. The proponent, as the project builder, may argue for a relaxation of the regulations with a greater spacing between cross-passage escape routes to save costs. 

3D simulations allow experts and operational staff to test and learn which evacuation methods are optimal for the conditions and understand where to direct passengers to exit the tunnel in case of emergency. Digital models communicate potential risks and illustrate how these might happen, allowing staff to develop alternative plans should an exit route be impeded.

Emergency rescue simulations can also help identify flaws in an emergency plan, which is particularly useful when a restrictive physical environment must be worked around. Disaster recovery simulations can incorporate the specifics of the railway environment and tackle this need exactly.

It is not uncommon that railway operators need to ‘real world’ test railway and other emergency situations, such as breakdowns in or near tunnels. The cost of these tests in the real world are very highmillions of dollars. The quality of physics-based interactive CGI simulations, custom-built for these scenarios, can satisfy many of the needs with much higher fidelity, more opportunity for testing nuances and iterations with much lower operational disruptions.

Train in a flood risk tunnel
High flood risk tunnels require site-specific evacuation plans. Tunnel floods can occur from heavy rainfall, surface runoff if drainage systems are damaged or overwhelmed, lake or stream overflow, or failures in the tunnel’s pipes or pumps.
Floodwater rescue training in tunnel
Floodwater rescue training is essential for railway networks with tunnels in areas prone to flooding.

Railway station emergency evacuation

There are many different kinds of civilian emergencies that necessitate particular forms of emergency responses for large and complex buildings such as railway stations. These events may be anything from natural disasters such as earthquakes to fires, to terrorism threats, cyberattacks, and bomb alerts. Some will require an immediate alert for civilians to evacuate as directed, commonly through sounding an evacuation alarm.

Staff must be well-versed in the specific evacuation plan for that event; an evacuation due to a fire will change depending on the location of the fire, while a terrorism threat may involve evacuation from any area of the building as quickly as possible. Having an emergency exit plan for all areas of a station, including a route for an emergency evacuation for persons with disabilities, must be a part of railway staff safety training.

Emergency exit simulations can help meet these needs. Evacuation simulations allow staff members to learn the layout of the station or building in detail from multiple viewpoints and perspectives. This familiarity encourages staff to use their incident handling skills to quickly adapt their response to the type and location of the danger, as well as to changes in personnel and building parameters.

Emergency evacuation modelling is a highly effective way to develop and refine evacuation plans, ensuring the most tactical evacuation routes. It is the most efficient way of creating an evacuation plan in a very complex environment, with many variables to consider, such as fluctuating volumes of foot pedestrians and traffic, numerous levels and entrances to the premises, as well as elevators, escalators and stairwells.

Ultimately, a sophisticated method of incident response training becomes absolutely essential when preparing staff to manage a complex environment with the potential for many different kinds of disaster.

Emergency drill simulations facilitate the development of effective emergency plans and provide staff members with major incident training in a resource-effective and learning-conducive manner.

A security incident involving evacuation of the premises is complicated in a busy railway station
A security incident involving evacuation of the premises is a complicated logistical task for a busy railway station, which may necessitate the visualisation of many factors in the urban environment, including pedestrian evacuation modelling and vehicle movement simulations. This Urban CGI image illustrates the heavy level of foot traffic often present around railway stations.

Medical evacuations of passengers or staff

Emergency medical training can be required of railway staff, particularly those with direct contact with passengers. This training involves emergency first aid skills that help staff members respond effectively to medical emergencies, including individual passenger health events or violent behaviour. This training is particularly important when these events occur in transit far from medical facilities.

Emergency medical care simulations can help staff prepare for delivering critical care, including how to transport an injured individual to an ambulance in a highly concentrated environment.

Emergency medical evacuation plan from a train
Thorough emergency medical evacuation plans are essential in situations where someone must be safely manoeuvred from a small, busy space.

Other railway incidents

Incident response training for employees can also involve situations in which railway employees must manage an event that does not develop into a full-blown ’emergency.’ Examples are minor collisions that do not end in derailment, communication failures, or other ‘near misses.’ The optimal response in such situations often depends upon staff having a thorough understanding of train infrastructure, the nature of crowd movements, and other priorities that arise in response to the event. These situations require meticulous incident management systems. Familiarity with response protocol may be the difference between a serious situation blossoming into a large-scale disaster or emergency.

General emergency evacuation plans must account for all members of the public, including young children
General emergency evacuation plans can be tested and refined using CGI technology to help train employees for any situation that may arise. These evacuation plans must account for all members of the public, including the elderly, people with disabilities, and young children.

How Urban CGI’s disaster preparedness simulations can help

Our team uses cutting-edge interactive CGI technology to create and recreate realistic 3D simulations of complex assets and environments, helping our clients with a range of planning and communication needs. One of the most innovative ways our software is utilised is to produce captivating and interactive training materials for disaster preparation (as well as many other forms of railway competency-based training and inductions). By creating an accurate replication of environments and infrastructure – including complex factors such as crowd dynamics, weather conditions and specific evacuation routes – emergency procedures can be developed and quickly learned by staff.

Disaster simulation software offers a modern solution to an age-old problem and is rapidly becoming the reality of transport safety preparation. Emergency and evacuation modelling and simulation software is adopted with increasing frequency, due to the measurable return on investment and its unrivalled efficiency and effectiveness in saving lives.

We can assist with visualisation resources and emergency training course material

Emergency simulation scenarios make disaster and emergency management training and courses highly digestible for railway staff. These emergency response simulation exercises can form parts of formal accreditation systems, allowing trainees to receive safety certifications and other qualifications online, whereas this would have previously taken an immense amount of time and resources with site visits, in-person supervision, and preparation of printed materials. With our technology, virtual disaster preparedness training can be undertaken by all staff, using the same interactive model, giving trainees a thorough understanding of the railway infrastructure, conditions, and emergency procedures.

Full-scale emergency or disaster response simulation exercises or drills in a simulated environment allow participants to understand precisely what must be done in each unique high-risk situation.

Having the right processes and equipment is one side of being disaster-ready; having thoroughly trained employees is the other.

Efficient communication in the face of disaster

When community emergencies occur, employees may find themselves in rapidly evolving and unfamiliar circumstances, no matter how comprehensive their training has been. In these situations, it is imperative that staff use their knowledge and understanding of the conditions to make quick decisions, acting decisively, and issuing effective emergency communications where necessary.

People are most likely to be confident in high-stress situations if they have a detailed understanding of emergency processes and protocols and are familiar with the surrounding infrastructure, including exit routes and safe pathways. Visual simulations give you this advantage: the more thorough and detailed the knowledge, the more equipped staff are to adapt to new circumstances. Simulations help to impart in-depth knowledge, giving staff the skills and confidence to do what needs to be done in the face of disaster.

Simulations are also useful in helping you manage risks after an actual disaster has transpired. For example, a digital model of a disaster zone can be used to communicate to staff, rescue personnel, and members of the community about what has happened, allowing them to visualise the scenario and make the best decision possible under pressure.

Interactive digital maps can also inform the public of alternate transport routes if a railway line has been disrupted, and can aid in designing and planning precincts and infrastructure to be more disaster resilient.

The team at Urban CGI are specialists in the railway industry and have been producing real-time digital models and animations for decades. We have extensive experience modelling railway environments in many different contexts. If you wish to discuss how we can help with your emergency planning needs, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We would love to hear from you!

REFERENCES

[i] Injury in Australia: Transport accidents, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2023)

[ii] Guideline – Rail Emergency Management Planning, Rail Industry Safety and Standards Board, Australia and New Zealand (2018)

[iii] Joseph Stromberg, 4 facts everyone should know about train accidents, Vox (2015)

[iv] Serious unintentional injury involving a railway train or tram, Australia, 2009-10 to 2013-14 , Australian Institute of Heath and Welfare, Australian Government (2017)