The human element
There has been an increase in demand for rail travel, giving companies the opportunity to take advantage of significant technological advances
Automation is almost commonplace within the market however, it presents a new set of challenges that operators and suppliers must address.
Dr. Sukhy Barhey, director at BMT Asia Pacific, a subsidiary of BMT Group, highlights how the increased implementation of automated systems and advancement of technology are creating a shift in the skillsets required, behavioural change in stakeholders and new human factors challenges.
Dr. Barhey further explains how technology itself can play an integral role in supporting this shift change and provide rail operators and suppliers with the necessary training and design tools to achieve the highest performance levels possible.
Never before has the rail industry looked so buoyant. As passenger numbers continue to increase, so too does investment in new lines and innovative systems to deliver improved operational performance and reliability.
Operators around the world are achieving ‘on time passenger trip’ rates above 99.8 per cent. Indeed, Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China have sophisticated railway systems for both metropolitan areas and cross border travels with the rest of the world catching up quickly.
Increased automation including the introduction of driverless trains, automatic fare collections and revenue distribution, as well as automated customer support is already delivering huge operational benefits. However, it is also creating several challenges that operators and suppliers need to address. Of interest is the impact on people as the systems become increasingly complex.
As train operators move into more centralised control function roles within super control centres, the required skillsets of personnel are quickly changing from active roles that strongly influence the train operation to a role that is more passive monitoring where the operator may only engage with the system if there is a problem or an emergency.
This means that soft skills such as collective decision making, leadership and communication are becoming vital in these high stress situations, as well as the more traditional core engineering skills. The adoption of automation and advanced technologies has also resulted in a paradigm shift in job functions creating new roles such as cyber security, software developers and big data analysts.
This shift of roles has created several human factor challenges in the railway industry. The train operators who became control centre operators are losing familiarity with the systems operation. This eventually leads to skill degradation and becomes a problem when technology fails and the operator must take over the control of the system.
The operators may not have the required level of familiarization to operate the system. Another risk of operators becoming a passive factor of the system is high dependency on the technology. It is human nature to depend on technology when it is available. However, if technology fails and operators are not aware of it, it could end up in a catastrophe.
Many railway accidents have occurred due to this exact reason. Whilst humans are very good at adapting to different circumstances, we can often find it difficult to handle stress and work overload when emergencies arise and intervention is required.
Furthermore, given the reduced levels of action and intervention required by a human being, there can be long periods of mundane activity which despite being important to keep the system running, doesn’t require a high level skillset. This can quickly change if there is a system error or problem where personnel are required to suddenly make complex decisions to identify and rectify the issue.
The number of new train lines being developed also requires large numbers of people to be trained and this can be challenging if access to the systems isn’t possible until the later stages of development.
Taking away the human element from the active part of the system also creates operational difficulties. In a manned train operation system, a train operator will have a fair situational awareness of the train and its surrounding.
Operators will be aware of sudden changes in track conditions, what is happening with the platforms, and the atmosphere among the passengers – all of which is vital information for satisfactory and seamless railway operation. The operator was not just an operator, they acted as a communication interface between passengers, and operation control centres. However, unmanned rail operation does not have the same level of situational awareness.
No longer do you have an operator on board who can communicate to passengers, carry out quick fixes for simple technical faults or handle false alarms when they occur. Furthermore, human beings can struggle with maintaining high levels of vigilance over a long period of time especially when performing repetitive and passive tasks. Boredom, lack of vigilance, low job satisfaction and job security have become real problems facing staff.
The aforementioned factors are actual performance shaping factors which influence the situational awareness and decision making. These eventually contribute to increased levels of human error.
Technology not only affects how the railway is operated and how the workforce is carrying out the operation, it also affects the behaviour of passengers. Slips, trips and falls among the pedestrians have increased due to smartphone usage.
This has an implication on railway passenger safety. Recently, in the Hong Kong Media there have been references to passenger being distracted by their smart phones and what affect this could have on escalator safety.
Passengers have become too distracted and fail to hold on to the handrails and stanchions leading to increased potential for injuries due to falls.
Not only are passengers distracted by looking at their smart phones, often they will be wearing headphones. This drastically reduces their awareness of their surroundings – a key concern when faced with an emergency where situational awareness becomes key for survival. Another passenger behavioural change due to increased smart phone usage on the move is how people react to emergency situations. Even though our first instinct is to evacuate in an emergency, there is a far greater temptation now to stop and capture the situation on our phones.
Operators around the world are trying to increase their service levels by cutting down the queuing times and optimizing the passenger flow. Most of these projects have delivered improvements to the passenger flow. However, various experiments have proven that pedestrians walking while interacting with smartphones reduce their walking speeds by approximately 20 per cent. Therefore, understanding and coping with behavioural changes of passengers interacting with technology is vital for effective and optimum operation.
The factors discussed earlier in this article highlight the sheer scale of change that is taking place due to the advancement of technology in railway. BMT has been involved in projects all around the world, dealing with many of the issues related to technology implementation within railways.
The industry faces two major issues. Accommodating the changing skills that require frequent and cost-effective training methods and the seamless introduction of the technology to empower human abilities and overcome human limitations.
BMT has successfully addressed the skills issue with technology itself. Virtual reality and augmented reality (VR and AR) has become a mature technology over the past decade. BMT’s engineers, designers and human factors specialists have carefully introduced VR and AR as a proven training tool in multiple industries including rail. Using VR as a training tool can be extremely effective for rail companies, as opposed to traditional high-end simulators and can be used for training in a wide variety of areas including: operations, control centre, maintenance, track work etc.
Through VR, trainees have a safe environment to train, make mistakes and learn through a highly immersive and engaging experience. Research indicates that VR training can increase the learning effectiveness by 76 per cent compared to traditional training methods.
Technology and people
It’s important to note that to deliver successful VR training requires a mix of engineers and human factors specialists who understand the technical requirements and intricacies of the training domain and software engineers who can translate the requirements into high-quality immersive, engaging content in the digital domain.
BMT’s experience provides it with an insight into those engineering areas that are complex, high risk or low frequency and require special training.
To ensure that the issues related to integration of people and rail systems are addressed, it is essential that all aspects of the human machine interface are considered during the early stages of design, and that sufficient analysis is undertaken to understand their impact on system function and performance.
Ideally, early engagement with the rail operators will help to obtain clarification as to what is expected while meeting desired safety, reliability and operational performance.
Dr. Sukhy Barhey is director of BMT Asia Pacific