Support for Operational Decision-Making

A new operational decision-making model for abnormal conditions is expected to help industry to keep passengers and freight moving safely during difficult situations.
Improving front-line operational decision making

GB rail's exemplary safety record is due to conscious, prolonged, and incremental investment in safety driven improvements. However, a culture of adherence to rules, procedures and hierarchies can, in some circumstances, reduce system flexibility and the ability to respond to and manage unique situations quickly and effectively. This means opportunities to prevent small incidents from escalating can be missed when frontline staff feel they lack the confidence to act, or react in the most risk adverse and restrictive way. This  can result knock on whole system safety risk as well as impacting service delays, cancellations, and reactionary delays across the network.

Recent RSSB research has examined the nature of operational decision making during abnormal working conditions - circumstances in which staff cannot complete procedural requirements in a timely manner – in particular.

  • the critical factors that impact real time decision-making 
  • how managerial or cultural constraints – or an individual's perception of these – affect decision-making and a willingness to suggest strategies for managing issues
  • barriers to change and how these can be overcome

This understanding, together with established good practice in other safety-critical industries such as aviation and emergency services, has been used to create a decision-making support model and tool, that empowers staff to take appropriate decisions where:

  • adherence to a company or local procedure might lead to a delay in resolving a problem without any foreseeable safety gain
  • there are no applicable rules
  • unusual circumstances mean that the rule cannot be directly applied or now does not provide the best and safest outcome

With suitable training and wider cultural and organisational change, this approach can give staff confidence that decisions they make will be evaluated fairly – based on the process they used and the information available to them at the time – and should result in more consistent approaches and help to counteract decision-making 'paralysis'.

Operational decision making has been previously undervalued. This tool, along with the training, recognises the challenges we face and enables mature and sensible operational decisions to be made by our frontline staff that allows us to keep running trains, moving passengers and freight safely in difficult situations.  - Tim Shoveller, Managing Director, Stagecoach PLC

An in-service pilot is planned with East Midlands Trains and Network Rail’s London and North Eastern route between March 2019 and March 2020.

If you are an operator and want to find out more about the tool or the pilot or would like to implement the approach in your organisation, get in touch. 

Topics covered

  • Operational decision making
  • Perturbed working
  • Service delays
  • Reactionary delays
  • Secondary risk
  • Good practice


Crew Rescheduling for Disruption Management (S271)
ATOC / Network Rail Guidance Note – Meeting the Needs of Passengers when Trains are Stranded
G-FORCE: a tool for improving operational decision making (T1135 Good practice guide)
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