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Test driving future transport technologies at the Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre

The Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation (BCIMO) has launched a new Mobility Hub and state-of-the-art Transport Systems Simulator at its centre for Rail innovation. Head of Engineering and Programmes Tony Joy explains how these assets will be used to support the development of new technologies and emerging markets.

In 2022, we oversaw the launch of the Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre (VLRNIC), a world-leading hub for transport innovation. Built on the site of Dudley’s former railway station, and with Office of Rail and Road (ORR) licence exemption, the £32 million centre already offers a range of cutting-edge facilities – including a Rail Development and Test Site comprising engineering hall and workshop, a 2.2km test track, a world-first 15m radius loop, and a rapid battery charger, as well as a number of test laboratories, serviced office spaces and a soon to be fully launched state-of-the-art Events Suite. These facilities were designed to support the testing and development of Very Light Rail (VLR), and other greener, more affordable transport systems.

Exciting new training, R&D and testing facilities


Now, we’ve launched two new features – a Mobility Hub, and a state-of-the-art Transport Systems Simulator. Both will be used, not just as part of the ongoing Coventry Very Light Rail (CVLR) project (which BCIMO is supporting), but by companies looking to develop their own new transport technologies.

The mobility hub is operational and ready to use. Developed in collaboration with Coventry City Council, it’s a first-off prototype of the hubs that may one day be rolled out across Coventry as part of its VLR scheme.

The modular hub (which was built with support from the European Development Fund and the UK government’s Getting Building Fund) could also be used by organisations looking to develop or trial alternative VLR systems. It was designed by London-based industrial design company Quarterre, and built by passenger transport specialist Trueform.

State-of-the-art transport systems simulator

We launched the hub alongside VLRNIC’s new Transport Systems Simulator, which will be used to train a new generation of VLR drivers, and to research, develop and test new VLR and transport technologies.

The simulator was designed and manufactured by Avansim, a leading supplier of simulation systems. This state-of-the-art technology will play a key role in the CVLR scheme, enabling its team to demonstrate and test routes, and even train new drivers.

At present, the system is programmed with two demonstrator routes – the proposed demonstrator CVLR route (from Coventry Train Station to Pool Meadow Bus Station), and the VLRNIC’s own test track.

This means that organisations can use the simulator to drive along our track and get a good appreciation of the different facilities that make up our Rail Development and Test Site. They can also drive the vehicle around Coventry and get a sense of what the VLR system will actually look like in operation.

Supporting research and development projects

While the new simulator is set to play an important role in the development of CVLR, it has applications beyond this scheme, and can be programmed to emulate different vehicles – making it ideal for transport research and development projects.

Because its touch screens simulate controls, it could be used for driver interface development. Organisations could put the buttons in different positions, or explore different ways of operating it.

Similarly, it could be used to explore interfaces with the driver, looking at how information from camera or sensing systems is fed to them.

Beyond the cab, the simulator could be used to explore the way passengers interact with vehicles – an important consideration when developing transport systems for urban centres. It also enables organisations to explore issues like driver awareness.

Ultimately, this fantastic technology will support one of BCIMO’s four key objectives – facilitating the development of future transport technologies.

Enabling local authorities to explore VLR

Another of BCIMO’s areas of focus (captured in its ‘cog’ model for innovation) is the development of emerging markets. My colleagues and I plan to use technology like the simulator to develop the potential market for VLR, working with local authorities and other stakeholders.

If a particular city is interested in introducing its own VLR system, and is doing some low-level assessments, we could scan the route and transfer it into the simulator.

It’s a way of exploring – and bringing to life – a potential route. Users could literally sit in the driver’s seat and ‘drive’ along that proposed route, encountering simulated road vehicles, people crossing the street, and even buildings. It could be very realistic, helping local transport authorities to secure stakeholder buy-in, and to explore potential challenges.

Equipped with this technology, and working with appropriate industry partners, we believe that VLRNIC could act as a VLR advice centre. We’d work with local authorities keen to develop their own affordable tram system, taking them through the early work and helping them to establish whether VLR is right for their region.

To some extent, the technology is incidental. Our ultimate goal is to create a market for VLR solutions – something we hope to do by raising awareness, and helping local transport authorities to recognise the potential of this innovative transport mode.

VLRNIC’s new driver simulator was showcased at Coventry’s MotoFest and the Love Electric event

Road testing VLRNIC’s new facilities

Our portable driver simulator has already been well received, and staff from BCIMO and Coventry City Council were shown how to set up and operate it during a training day in May.

It later went on display at Coventry’s popular MotoFest, and the Love Electric event, where delegates (including West Midlands Mayor Andy Street) were invited to enter a closely fought driver performance competition.

But the driver simulator serves a serious purpose – it’s an important part of our strategy to be a national hub for rail innovation. And, back at the VLRNIC, this exciting system is already enabling users to test-drive the transport technologies of the future.

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