Think a train just has one driver? International network controller research reveals weak spots across many hands driving rail safety

10 October 2022

Keeping trains on track for safe arrival is a team effort' but new CQUniversity research shows the system responsible for train safety can lead to skills gaps and problematic ways of working.

The international research is helping inform a new code of practice to ensure safe recruitment and training of rail network controllers' and the researchers say identified weak spots must be addressed to successfully transition rail to a more efficient and automated future.

The groundbreaking study of 55 network controllers across eight Australian and New Zealand rail companies assessed teams for non-technical skills vital to network performance.

The role description for a network controller varies across the rail sector' but within the research describes employees who interact with rail drivers and remotely control rail signals to manage train movements.

Project lead Associate Professor Anjum Naweed said qualities such as communication' decision making' cooperation and workload management were mapped across the networks.

"Our mapping highlighted the importance of a good relationship between controllers and train drivers' with any instability in this dynamic often creating elevated risk'" he said.

"We also explored which specific behaviours were used to reduce the risk of errors' across a range of 61 scenarios presented to the participants."

The CQUniversity team used the Scenario Invention Task Technique or "SITT"' created by A/Prof Naweed' to prompt realistic reactions to hypothetical events' and extract participants' expertise and experiences.

"We discovered concrete examples of scenarios where actions intended to promote safety were actually creating new safety risks in the system'" A/Prof Naweed explained.

The research is important because it directly addresses looming changes in ways of working in the network control system.

"In the near future' network controllers are likely to become more akin to 'rail safety managers' as their tasks become more automated'" he said.

"This means that applications of skill like situation awareness' conscientiousness and self-management' to name just a few' will become more critical to the role' and understanding where those strengths lie will lend itself proactively to anticipation of looming changes."

The research has been used to directly inform a new Code of Practice by the Rail Industry Safety and Standards Board in Australia about the recruitment and training of network controllers' which is currently out for public consultation.

"The article will generation citations' but it's also super important that the research directly influences policy and practice industry. The new Code of Practice will help ensure outcomes have research impact across Australia and New Zealand and inspire ways of working further afield.

The research was funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Research Award.

The study' published in the journal Applied Ergonomics' was co-authored by Philippa Murphy from the Rail Safety and Standards Board in the United Kingdom. Read the full study here.