Digital Rail – factoring in the humans

by Dr Ged Morrisroe, Associate Director at CCD.

This article originally ‘Digital Rail – factoring in the humans’ appeared in Rail Professional. Read it in Rail Professional June edition, page 113-114 here.

The digital revolution has impacted music, tv and navigation, and many things in the modern world…

Now it is the turn of the railways. Not only is Digital Rail the ‘next big thing’ in the UK’s rail network, it marks a new era that could see unprecedented levels of reliability, efficiency and safety. The technology is being used to make significant and substantial improvements to the operation of the UK’s railways, and do away with the analogue challenges of the past.

But, as with any changes in technology, the impact on people will be significant, and to maximise the benefits it is important to gain an understanding of how those changes will impact on the humans that operate the system.

The impact of digital rail will be in four key areas:

Train Planning, Resourcing and Pathing
Traffic Control
Incident & Failure Management

The impact matrix

Whilst Digital Railway technology will be the enabling technology to support the four areas, there are additional technologies related to train protection systems (ETCS) and others that will provide the building blocks on which to base the Traffic Management System.

The successful implementation will allow increased network capacity and time efficiency, reduce operational delays and costs and improved safety and incident management over the network. This should mean an efficient and affordable rail system with increased passenger satisfaction and profitability.

One of the key issues is to appreciate that this is a system that includes both technology and people, and success will come from understanding how they can best work together. Although there are standard systems and products available, it seems that each implementation of digital rail is bespoke for the area or country. So, there is no ‘handbook’ for the way in which the ‘man and machine’ can be harmonised to best effect.

control room design

Whilst the implementation of digital railway will vary, understanding and designing systems to support the role of people in the system can be addressed through standard human factors methodologies. Of course, the picture is made more complex because many of these issues are interrelated, so the ‘matrix’ of impacts need to be addressed from the start. The earlier human factors thinking is incorporated into the Concept of Operations, the more likely there is to be a successful outcome.

Signalling success

There are many areas where human factors will determine the success of the rollout of digital railway that operators need to consider.

First is the TM Operator Organisation. TMS is usually accompanied by a new organisation or structure and accompanying role changes. New organisations/structures always need to be communicated carefully to the people they impact; it is essential to involve them in the creation of that structure to create a sense of buy-in and genuine excitement about the potential of the technology to support what they do. Any changes to the signaller role needs careful consideration; expectation of their responsibility varies from TM system to system.


In all cases, they have a safety of the line duties. But in some systems, train regulation becomes the responsibility of a ‘Dispatcher’, and the signaller takes no part in planning. The HF issue to be considered is who negotiates and resolves in the Plan the views of all parties (Ops, RUs, Maintenance).

To maximise TM benefits, the area of control needs to be on a network level rather than a small area. Small areas have the potential to create problems at the boundary either with an area with a different TMS or an area with no TMS.

Another human issue is that if the area is sufficiently simple, so the user can manage without using the TMS, then overriding the system can become the norm.

Concerning TM Migration, the implementation of any new system in any organisation is always difficult as people must be trained and become skilled in how to use the system to its best effect. TMS is usually introduced line by line or by adding areas, so initially the demand on the TM organisation is unrealistically low, and the ‘Tipping point’ can creep up unexpectedly, with a manual approach continuing to be used and the TM not being exercised to its full potential at the point at which it would become useful.

When it comes to automation the question to ask is: ‘Is the centralised TM plan understandable by everyone who needs to understand it?’

Again, the signaller is central to this; if the TM plan has been de-conflicted prior to the trains entering the signaller’s area of control, it is important that they can see the merits of the plan and let the ARS route the train according to it.

Working models

Predicting workload is very difficult, so the new organisation roles need a capacity statement with TMS demand defined and roles allocated. Normal working demand will be determined by traffic density, infrastructure capability and train performance, but this will vary enormously when there is a critical incident.

The challenges for human factors include the need for sizing control rooms and workplaces at an early stage of development, also the planning of migration and training of staff. TM uses a dynamic model to predict the effect of changes to the plan. Using ‘what-ifs’ may well be a valuable tool in gaining timely stakeholder agreement about the causes of conflicts and finding and agreeing on the best solution

Finally, consider TM Acceptance and Validation. TMS solutions need to be feasible and trusted, and results in line with predicted outcome quality. This revolves around the quality of data, poor data reduces trust and encourages TM operators to go manual and in doing so, deviate from the plan.

5 key Human Factors issues in the Digital Railway:

Signalling Staff

What is their role and function?
How do you get them to buy-into the new system?
How do you train them to maximise the benefits of TMS?


How do you manage the process of transition to build understanding, trust and engagement?


How can you ensure capacity in times of critical incident?
How do you ensure that there is sufficient resource for the ongoing workload?

Building Trust

What steps are required to create trust in the new system from the outset?

Transferring Knowledge

What structure is required?
How do you transfer staff to new roles?
What new skills are required?

TMS technology covers a wide range of functions, and the implementations differ considerably. The challenge is that too often the Operations Concepts do not include many of the human factors issues. If the investment in TM is to be worthwhile, operators need to give the system a chance to operate as intended. CCD’s experience shows that to optimize technology, people and processes, HF implications need to be stated clearly in Operations Concept from the outset.

Embarking on a TMS project?

CCD’s experience with implementing TMS technology includes the UK, Sweden and Denmark. Our human factors expertise on digital rail projects has shown that to optimize technology, people and processes, Human Factors implications need to be stated clearly in Operations Concept from the outset.

Case Studies



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