by Jarina D'Auria

Union Pacific Makes a Game of Risk

Apr 27, 20093 mins
Risk Management

Training game lets Union Pacific workers learn from their mistakes to become safer and more efficient in their jobsn

The locomotive rattled down the track, straight toward the Union Pacific train operator and his string of freight cars. The driver quickly maneuvered to a different track: The trains were close to colliding. Luckily, this near-miss was just the outcome of a computer training game to teach Union Pacific (UP) railroad workers how to handle dangerous, real-world situations.

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Safety is a major concern for UP, which runs North America’s longest railroad. So the game lets it do something traditional training does not—put trainees in unexpected and possibly hazardous circumstances so they learn to handle them without the risk. “We wouldn’t want to damage a driver or a railcar,” says UP CIO Lynden Tennison.

While the recession has slowed adoption of corporate training games, says Forrester Research analyst Claire Schooley, “it’s still going to be big.” The U.S. Army, an early adopter, will invest $50 million over five years in a gaming unit to train soldiers for combat situations.

UP uses simulators for training locomotive engineers but also knew it needed a more efficient way to train other yard employees. Traditional methods were too time consuming. IT led the effort as it understood the technology available, says Tennison. In 2005, work began on a game that also instructs switchmen, brakemen and other yard personnel. Tennison hired gaming experts from PI Engineering to help build a simulated rail yard because UP’s IT team didn’t have experience with gaming tools. While IT departments sometimes build gaming platforms, most contract with gaming specialists to do the job, says Schooley.

PI Engineering provided development tools—such as a power engine, which allows for realistic graphics—along with physics experts who calculated how trains start and stop based on weather, friction, incline and other real-life effects. They worked with UP’s software group to build the simulation and rail yard scenarios, which include hours of video footage and thousands of photo stills of its rail yard in Cheyenne, Wyo., as well as customer facilities, loading docks, rail lines, highways and geographical landmarks. While the combination of footage and physics puts workers in real-life work situations, such as switching cars in the yard, “the real value is not the pictures or video,” says Tennison. “It’s how you use the physics and the logic behind how your employees do their job.” More than 2,000 UP employees have trained with the game.

Although it’s still early to have comprehensive metrics, Tennison says safety performance in locations using the game has improved compared to locations that train without it. The game also lets UP’s yard personnel augment other training, such as the 40 hours mandated yearly by the Federal Railroad Administration. “The biggest benefit for us is that we can accelerate training, especially with new employees or recurring training,” he says. And by taking advantage of gaming culture, the simulation is “more natural and familiar for younger employees because most grew up with video games and relate easily to the medium.”

Tennison says to start small when implementing training games. He did a pilot and validated it by proving the business value through time and safety benefits. He is now evaluating simulation games for UP field managers to help prepare them for complex decision-making situations.