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Virtual reality: a new training tool for SNCF employees

The study of incidents at SNCF has revealed the importance of self-management and especially non-technical skills (NTS) to safety performance. Improving non-technical skills boosts safety performance and thus reduces the number of incidents. With this objective in mind, a group of SYNAPSES experts have developed a simulator that will enable employees in multiple areas to improve their non-technical skills.

Who hasn’t been on a train that has stopped on the tracks for a few minutes? In this situation, the driver must warn passengers not to try to open the doors. At the same time, he may need to get off the train to try to find out what is happening. Studies show that in this situation, it is essential that the driver communicate this message to reassure passengers before he gets off the train, since seeing someone on the tracks will tend to worry them.

Identifying situations of this sort and training employees to deal with them involve giving them the opportunity to learn non-technical skills. These so-called soft skills are “the cognitive and personal social skills that improve how employees perform their job, specific tasks, and technical procedures”, explains Nicolas Renoir, cognitive project manager at I&R and Synapses. However, 90% of the training provided at SNCF is technical training. The Safety Department (DGS) has therefore asked the “Systems Safety” cluster, led by Fabien Létourneaux, to address this issue.  

A group of Synapses experts in multiple areas (research, traction training, traffic, safety, maintenance, etc.) was therefore formed specifically to design a new training system: the inter-occupation simulator. Developed in collaboration with the start-up MANZALAB, this simulator uses virtual reality headsets to accurately reproduce work environments. Two employees wearing headsets are placed in separate rooms or at a distance from each other and asked to react to a situation created for them. The incident today is an “abnormal shock” occurring while the train is running. This event primarily involves two occupations: train driver and traffic manager.

During the twenty minutes or so of the simulation, the instructor observes the behaviour of the two employees. When it is over, he shows them a film where they see the actions of both simultaneously. By developing NTSs, the two peoples’ actions in the situation can be better coordinated, and the constraints of each person’s job are better understood. The simulation also shows that good communication is based on processes such as confirmation, that is, repeating what the other person has just said to be sure the message has been correctly understood. The results of the current trials are generally positive, and ideas for other uses such as testing new procedures have been identified.

The simulation can be used in this way for train drivers, i.e. 10% of the company’s employees, and will be put into general use by the end of the year. 


Did you know? 

The most frequent human errors are often linked to inattention, doubt, time pressure, communication-related problems, decision-making, or leadership. These errors are often made by experienced employees who have very good technical skills but weaknesses in their non-technical skills.

Studies done in England and Australia were the first to define how an NTS can be observed in behaviour. Seven categories of NTSs were identified: situational awareness, professional awareness, communication, decision-making, cooperation, ability to manage workload, and self-management.