Under the Hood: The Promise of VR in High-Speed Rail

Guest Author September 24, 2018

6 min read

By Nigel Peters

Every month, an Autodesk expert gets technical and provides an overview of the AEC Collection’s most powerful workflows. Read on to learn how one group of rail designers created a VR experience with Autodesk solutions.

Imagine traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than two hours. Or heading 200 miles up the coast to see the redwood trees and still be back in the city for dinner. All while avoiding highway traffic and the hassle of the airport.

High-speed rail is being used by countries around the world to speed transportation between cities in an eco-friendly, cost-efficient way. Commuters can travel from Tokyo to Osaka in less than three hours or from London to Paris in little more than two hours. This transportation mode also has great potential in the U.S. It’s a country with large distances between population centers, yet Americans tend to rely more on automobiles and air travel. The reasons are complex—enormous costs, getting stakeholders and the public to endorse, no mechanism to visualize or see the vision.

High-speed rail can connect us much more efficiently than roads or airports while improving reducing our impact on the environment. Imagine a state-of-the art rail experience where residents, politicians, and other stakeholders could visualize what high-speed rail would look and feel like before construction even begins. Nowhere is this more apparent than in California where the Association for California High-Speed Trains (ACHST) has been working with the state to promote the benefits of an upcoming high-speed rail project set to open in the next decade.

The California Experience

ACHST partnered with Project Buccaneer, a group of engineering, transportation and technology professionals. Their charge – create a virtual reality experience that would show Californians how the high-speed train would work and impact their lives. Dubbed The California Experience, the VR simulation is a collaboration among Autodesk and transportation engineering and design firms HNTB and WSP.

The project allows people to virtually ride the train going 150 miles per hour and visit dozens of landmarks across the state from Santa Monica Pier near Los Angeles to Redwoods National Forest in Northern California.

Autodesk’s Commitment to Rail Design

The team demonstrating a VR model of California High-Speed Rail at the Global Climate Summit in San Francisco.

The project is part of Autodesk’s focused commitment to rail design throughout the AEC Collection portfolio. We’re helping customers realize the promise of VR visualization for rail by enabling more efficient and complex rail design. I’m excited to share that I lead a dedicated rail team at Autodesk that is responsible for expanding and enhancing our capabilities in this transportation mode. Engineers have always been able to design rail corridors in Civil 3D, however, the 2019 release is the first version to consolidate all rail features in a new rail ribbon within the core Civil 3D product for simple, easy access. Now, workflows for designing rails are streamlined and better integrated with other design pieces like roads, stations, parking garages, drainage, and crossings. In addition, it’s just as easy to migrate rail design between Autodesk solutions (from InfraWorks to 3ds Max, for example) as it’s always been.

We’re taking a multi-pronged strategy, focusing on track design, improvements to the product user experience, and integrating BIM to support and enable more advanced rail design workflows.

To this end, the Civil 3D product team delivered enhancements to the workflow, including:

Watch the rail design webcast below

The result: better collaboration, better design, better results.

Creating a VR Experience for Rail

Creating a VR experience using AEC Collection solutions couldn’t be easier. Let’s get under the hood and check out how you’d be able to do that.

Data Capture

The first thing you’d do is capture the real-world environment of your rail corridor services. You could do this with mobile LIDAR or drone capture and then import the data into ReCap Pro to create a point cloud of your environment. You can also create 360-degree photos of your destinations. This is actually what the Project Buccaneer team did to create the various stops for the California Experience. For example, people can get off the train and feel like they’re in a Napa Valley vineyard.

Rail Design

Next: design your rail corridor in Civil 3D using the newly enhanced design tools within the new rail ribbon. First, set your horizontal geometry and alignment and add elevation as necessary. Then you can lay tracks, build tunnels and bridges, add crossings and incorporate existing water and drainage analyses—all in a single tool.

Data Aggregation

Then you can bring all this into InfraWorks—which is what I like to call our data aggregator. It’s here that we combine the reality capture from ReCap and the rail design from Civil 3D to create a physical model. We can also bring in other elements like signals, passing automobile traffic, pedestrians, vegetation, and even wildlife. Other data points that you can import include GIS Data and Revit models of rail platforms or stations.


You can then export your physical model from InfraWorks as an FBX file and import it into 3ds Max along with your rail platforms or rail stations from Revit or Sketchup. You could create fly-through animation videos in InfraWorks, but at this point, you will create your animations in 3ds Max to represent people entering a coach, a car pulling up to a crossing or livestock grazing next to the track.

VR Experience

Once you are happy with your animations, you’ll need to import everything into 3ds Interactive (which is included with 3ds Max), Autodesk’s gaming engine, where you create your VR experience. It’s really as easy as pressing a few buttons, testing it on your local machine and then exporting to your VR platform of choice—whether it’s Xbox, Oculus or the HTC Vive.

Using VR to Win Projects

More firms are looking for the ‘It’ factor and VR is that innovative technology that up-levels project proposals. It really tells the story of the project so much better than traditional methods. We’re seeing that once a firm completes one VR experience, they want to do it for all of their projects. I know several folks that have created their own VR experiences to win projects and to convey a message. They’ve all done much better than somebody else trying to convey their vision on a piece of paper.

And the best part? Building a VR experience for rail is so easy with the Autodesk AEC Collection. Civil 3D is a powerful suite of tools that allow engineers to design across the full spectrum of infrastructure projects from roads to rail to buildings. Yet there’s a dedicated extension where all rail tools are consolidated on a single screen. From there, you just import your data and models through Autodesk workflows. Build your VR experience from ReCap to InfraWorks to 3ds Max. Your VR experience can be viewed by clients, the public and other stakeholders with almost any VR headset.

The key, of course, is simplicity.

Nigel Peters leads the enhancement of rail design and engineering capabilities across the AEC Collection portfolio.

Learn more about Civil 3D

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