The rail industry offers huge potential for the practical application of human factors/ergonomics (HF/E) to support human-centred design, to improve human performance and to help shift mindsets away from ‘blame and train’ towards an understanding of how work is done and how systems can be improved. HF/E is still somewhat misunderstood within the rail industry, but it is a discipline that is steadily maturing and one that is in increasing demand. This is thanks in no small part to the legislated requirements to consider HF/E, which have increased following a number of significant rail incidents. The long history and traditions of the rail industry are, however, at times at odds with the current demands placed on modern rail networks; there is a very real pressure to modernise infrastructure, improve efficiency and deliver increasing levels of service that have led to significant change and supported rapid growth. To achieve greater efficiencies, many rail operators now look closely for better ways of working, good practice industry-standards, cutting edge technology and even ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions. These characteristics make the rail sector a fascinating and challenging place to be an HF/E practitioner.
“The rail industry is a largely male-dominated industry, with proud engineering roots, robust trade unions, and rule-based methods of working that tend to have evolved slowly over time. The industry faces important medium-term challenges to attract and retain younger workers, to address the gender imbalance and to put in place strategies to help retain knowledge and domain-expertise.”
“The complexity associated with the layers of bureaucracy that come with an industry with such a deep seated history and culture is often considered to inhibit the take-up of new ideas and reduce the likelihood of successfully delivering change. As people are often quick to point out, “there’s the right way, the wrong way and the railway”.”
“When you start out in HF/E in the rail industry, you face the same issues as in other industries – many of your co-workers will struggle to articulate what HF/E is or where its value lies. If it is not confused with ‘human resources’ (not always an innocent slip of the tongue), many are happy to hold it in vague regard as a catch-all topic for ‘those-problematic-parts-we-can’t-engineer-out’.”
“Key skills for any HF/E practitioner therefore include the ability to communicate in terms that resonate with your audience, to influence and persuade, to be patient and pragmatic with your advice.”