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T's Bus Trainees can now fake the wheel

Story by Noah Bierman, Boston Globe.

The most notable obstacles from the driver's seat of this rumbling MBTA bus are the taxicabs - so many of them, each more frenetic than the one before, all steered by fearless drivers darting across lanes with nary a worry in the world.

Then there's the weather, clear as gin one moment, blowing snow as thick as bisque the next. There are fuzzy landmarks - is that the Hancock Tower in the distance? Then come the rotaries, fiendish little enemies of common sense that can make even the most hardbitten T drivers weak in the knees.

This is not the view from a real bus ride. It's not even the view from a real bus - but rather, from the seat of a new $1.3 million bus simulator MBTA officials are just beginning to use to train new drivers and retrain old ones.

But Boston is not Phoenix, with its dry, straight boulevards and relentlessly sunny skies. It isn't even New York, with its wide avenues and generally obedient pedestrians. So in this custom-crafted simulator, there are Northeasters, obnoxious jaywalkers, overhead lines for electric buses, and the Preble Circle rotary in South Boston, complete with a view of Whitey Bulger's former liquor store.

And then there's the narrow Silver Line tunnel heading to Logan International Airport.

"It's going to get tight. It's going to get very tight," said Ed Tighe, as the simulator screen shows the mouth of the tunnel at D Street in South Boston, and suddenly the bus is engulfed by darkness.

Tighe is a T driving instructor, and his next words are something short of encouraging: "You're still up on the curb." As he spoke, the graphics conspired to create a shaking sensation.

The simulator is housed in an anonymous-looking trailer in a Charlestown bus yard. The driving cabin is an exact replica of the cockpit of an MBTA bus, outfitted with a panorama of 10 video screens and a panel of 23 knobs, switches, and levers taken from real buses. (The black speckled floors underfoot would close the deal, if only someone would spill soda and scatter a few doughnut wrappers.)

This is a less provocative version of "Grand Theft Auto," for bus drivers only. An evil genius in an adjacent room - a T instructor - uses a joystick called a rabbit to throw anything and everything at trainees and at experienced drivers in need of remedial help. Among the challenges are digitized mothers with strollers on the edge of the sidewalk, police blockades up ahead, distracting fights in the rear of the bus, pedestrians with headphones wandering obliviously into traffic.

"Whatever you can envision as a potential accident situation, we can basically create here," said Tighe, who learned how to drive a bus the old-fashioned way, on a road, in 1974.

After a virtual crash or a real one, Tighe can reconstruct the scenario from multiple angles and different speeds, using a laser pointer to explain the warning signs leading up to the collision like John Madden diagramming all that went wrong on a fumbled snap. Then Tighe can replay the trouble spot again and again on the simulator, allowing the trainee to re-drive it until the lesson is learned and the crash avoided.

The idea is to replicate the trickiest driving conditions without risking human lives and 28-ton buses along the way.

"We can do things on a simulator that we can't do on the street," said Sue Lebbossiere, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's superintendent of training.

Like drive an obstacle course through the South End, which the machine can do. Or go from day to night to day with the flick of a switch. Then throw some fog in, just to make it interesting.

The T's pair of simulators were designed by FAAC, a company that also creates weapons delivery simulators for the military. Over the past decade, FAAC has expanded into bus, trolley, and subway simulators, and touts a 10 percent to 20 percent reduction in crashes for some of the nation's large transit agencies, including the Metropolitan Transit Agency in New York.

It's a costly investment for a financially struggling transit system like the MBTA, which has a $160 million deficit and is threatening significant fare hikes and service cuts. The General Manager of the MBTA, said the simulator is no souped-up video game, but a tool that will pay off, if accidents are indeed reduced, in lower liability costs, fewer injuries, and less damage to buses, each worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

MBTA drivers are involved in 2,000 to 2,500 crashes per year; about 400 to 600 of them are considered preventable. That's out of 4.5 million bus trips, according to MBTA statistics. Since 2000, MBTA buses have been involved in 11 fatalities.

It will take a few years to tell whether simulated training makes a difference in preventing crashes. After receiving the system last year and learning how to use it, MBTA instructors began training three dozen students as part of a six-week training course. Accident-prone drivers are also sent to Charlestown for retraining. The bulk of new-driver training remains on the road, instructors said, because simulators can never replace real life.

The Rotary World simulation unique to Boston has drivers practice navigating Preble Circle and Sweetser Circle in Everett. Unlike private motorists who tend to go to inside lanes, bus drivers are instructed to take the outside lane and check convex mirrors frequently to make sure they are not hitting the curb or colliding with impatient motorists who try to get around the long, lumbering buses.

The Boston version of the program also required the company to simulate, for the first time, dual-mode 60-foot buses that can switch from diesel engines to electrified catenaries as they ride in and out of the Silver Line tunnels to Logan Airport. The program can also reproduce the electric buses that run on overhead wires in Cambridge, which use a technology slightly different from that on the Silver Line.

After about 20 minutes of training, the fluorescent light inside the bus cab begins to feel oppressive. The unsettling motion of the video screen makes the driver dizzy.

"Easy now, easy, easy, easy," Tighe says. "Remember how I told you to steer, push-pull. You were steering like a car."

Then it finally happens. A crash, but from the driver's side, unexpectedly, rather than the rear-end collision the driver was anticipating. Tighe is patient and nonjudgmental as he explains how it happened. It's all about checking rear-view mirrors and avoiding sudden lane changes.

But Tighe isn't raising his voice or sweating. "If you have an accident, it's no big deal," he said.

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