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Optimising competence management to address SPAD risk

As train drivers play a critical role in avoiding SPADs, it’s vital for their skills and knowledge to be supported by an effective approach to competence management. However, recent research has highlighted competence management shortcomings in one-quarter of SPAD incidents (RSSB T1128). Therefore, going forward it pays to know what the underlying issues are and what improvements can help.

Before getting into the detail it’s worth highlighting a page on Integrating Non-Technical Skills (NTS) in Competence Management Systems (CMS). The page introduces NTS, describes how NTS deficiencies can lead to poor safety performance and how NTS can be integrated throughout the CMS for maximum benefit and sustained change. The page also has a link to NTS guidance which cites research that shows integrating NTS in this way can lead to a reduction in SPADs in the order of 6 – 30% so it’s worth taking a look.

Competence management issues and SPADs

Imagine a driver trainer not being aware that it was their job to teach route knowledge. Imagine also the trainer’s manager not being aware of this. Imagine a driver’s training being some 10 weeks less than the minimum required. An article written by Greg Morse, RSSB’s Lead Operational Feedback Specialist, to mark the 20th anniversary of the SPAD and fatal collision at Ladbroke Grove in 1999, reminds us that these failings were real and not imaginary. They all contributed to the incident, after which 31 people died, and life for hundreds of others would never be the same again. 

In the years since Ladbroke Grove, the industry has developed more robust CMSs which help ensure safety critical staff have the right skills and abilities. Like any system though, modern versions have their weaknesses. The same research that identified competence management shortcomings in one quarter of SPAD incidents also reveals what the specific issues are (RSSB T1128). 

Type of competence management issues leading to SPADs

Source:  Combination of train and freight operator data from T1128

The research identified a lack of route knowledge was a core theme running across the ‘training / briefing’, ‘assessment’ and ‘support / mentoring’ processes. Route knowledge issues were also evident with inexperience and/or unfamiliarity linked to over half of the ‘human performance’ issues leading to SPADs. The following examples illustrates some of the issues (adapted from T1128 data and a study looking at an increase in SPADs in Period 3 2018):

  • Training (lack of):  Management should have considered drivers’ understanding of the shunts necessary for a new roster and ensured that drivers were trained accordingly.
  • Training (lack of):  The driver’s route knowledge was poor due to rarely being sent over the route, and because they did not have enough route refreshing activities (i.e. training). Having passed one signal at danger with authority, the driver was asked by the signaller to identify the next specified signal. However, the driver was not able to do this as they believed the signal was located on a signal post, and not a signal gantry as it actually was, and this contributed to them missing the next signal, and passing it at danger.
  • Briefing:  The driver had not attended the previous three safety briefs. One of these related to a change in the Driving Policy around Train Protection & Warning System (TPWS) which was to not exceed 60mph when going through a single yellow and to be applying the brake. This is directly relevant to the incident as the driver was accelerating above 60mph having passed the signal in rear that was also a single yellow. The investigation also pointed to the organisational issues around briefing management. It identified a systemic failing in the way rosters were set for drivers where several drivers did not receive the briefing.
  • Assessment: Assessment was undertaken, however, despite the assessor’s questions with regards to the shunt being answered ‘vaguely’ by the driver, and with an error, it was marked as ‘correct’.
  • Support / mentoring:  The driver instructor had suffered from skill fade owing to a lack of driving time. In the driver’s own words, ‘I’ve been an instructor for 11 years now and I’ve done very little driving in that time as it is a conveyer belt of trainees’. Operations managers are now implementing a minimum of two hours driving per month for driver instructors to combat the problem.
  • Support / mentoring:  The driver had three managers in six months, and this prevented them forming a professional relationship, with the result that they felt uncomfortable raising personal issues.

Route knowledge

Given the importance of route knowledge in managing SPAD risk, what do drivers need to know and what’s the best way to learn it?  An RSSB research project looking at route knowledge helps provide some answers (RSSB project T1108). The findings from T1108 (and T1151 on guard route knowledge) are incorporated in the updated industry standard on route knowledge (RIS-3702-TOM; March 2020). The research identified ‘core’ requirements for drivers —the things drivers must know and, in terms of SPAD risk, the following are of note:

  • Significant gradients and areas of low adhesion.
  • Signals with significant read-across or read-through risk, late sighting, irregular distances, potential for misinterpretation, and multi-SPAD signals.
  • Details of the signalling and protection systems in place throughout the route, including details of transitions to alternate arrangements (for example changes in signal aspect type, such as a change from 4 to 3 aspect signals). This excludes passive systems such as TPWS as this should not affect how the route is driven.
  • Permissible speeds applicable to the traction being driven.
  • Permissible speed reduction warning indicators.
  • SPAD indicators.

The idea is that route knowledge requirements are used in a targeted way, based on risk. For example, knowing which signals have limited viewing time helps drivers prioritise their focus. That’s why signals that are experienced in a consistent format do not fall within the ‘core’ route knowledge category. The non-core items include signals which:

  • Are on the left-hand side in direction of travel (or otherwise orientated consistently throughout the route)
  • Are on plain-line sections of track
  • Are clearly sighted
  • Are consistently spaced
  • Are post-mounted
  • Have little or no read through potential
  • Have no route-knowledge associated SPAD history
  • Are fitted with AWS
  • Have countdown markers and signal reminder signs

To help drivers learn their routes, the research developed the idea of a ‘route story’ which works by drawing together a sequential list of route cues, and detailing what a driver needs to know about each one. This is done for each line on a route and aims to be the minimal set of route cues required for safe operation. The approach, successfully trialled by three companies, has four steps:

  1. Carry out a risk assessment to identify the route features—the project prepared a generic risk assessment for colour light signalling (download the excel file).
  2. Create the route-specific route story by identifying the detailed information for each essential route feature.
  3. Optimise the route learning time and assess competence by selecting appropriate training formats and conduct ongoing assessment.
  4. Monitor whether route learning process is working as it should.

A template for the route story approach has been developed, and the main report describes the approach with accompanying worked examples.

Once a driver ‘signs the route’ the next challenge is keeping route knowledge up to date. Changes to the route need to be briefed and updates made to route stories, but the biggest issue is fading route knowledge. A lack of driving time and infrequent route exposure can create issues, especially when performing irregular moves or working at less-familiar locations. Maximum timescales for route knowledge refreshers will help ensure drivers do not ‘fall off the radar’ but, according to the research, precise refresher frequencies are difficult to specify, mainly because there are too many factors to consider. 

The research lists items that can determine if route knowledge needs refreshing:  

  • Quick assessment or cab rides to check on skill fade.
  • Quick discussions with the individual to establish confidence and competence.
  • Feedback from instructors and managers.
  • Written and/or verbal tests.
  • Self-rating confidence to drive the route.
  • Driver requests for route refreshing.

Sometimes it’s only when a drivers’ roster is set that route knowledge issues are identified, often by the driver. For infrequently driven routes, having a system that periodically requests drivers to ‘self-declare’ if they are still comfortable to drive it, should identify refresher requirements in good time.

Other measures include:

  • Driver and manager checking rosters, and discussing any concerns.
  • Reminding drivers to ask for a route refresh if they’re not comfortable with the route.
  • Allocating a route conductor, even if a driver has ‘signed the route’.
  • Encouraging drivers to seek help from the signaller if they’re not sure about a movement.

Some route knowledge issues will vary according to the type of operation. For example, freight and On Track Machines (OTM) drivers work a wide variety of routes and perform a range of unusual shunt manoeuvres. Knowing which loops, junctions, points and signals are involved will be key, and planning complex moves in advance will help. Passenger drivers have equivalent demands on route knowledge—changing lines (e.g. fast-to-slow), operating longer formation trains or taking a diversionary route which affects station stopping positions and taking units into infrequently used depots.

Driver training

A key aspect of competence management is having training which is engaging, interesting, task based and memorable. Training needs to be refreshed on a regular basis and manage the risk associated with the role. This includes the design of training, how it is delivered and how learning from operational incidents is included in the refresh to make sure it stays current.

Making sure your training is based on a robust training needs analysis is an essential requirement. The industry’s Risk Based Training Needs Analysis approach is the key resource, which has pre-populated analyses for the role of a train driver.

Research has also looked at how to create a new and improved syllabus for training drivers, building on research which had previously been conducted on improving training (RSSB T1016). Having reviewed previous studies and existing training programmes, the research resulted in a professional train driver training course that uses the latest blended learning techniques, incorporating human factors, non-technical skills and customer service. The course covers the generic requirements for train driving including train handling, to meet the requirements from the EU Train Driver Licence Directive (TDLD) and UK Train Driver Licence and Certificate Regulations 2010 (TDLCR). The courseware was validated by the Office of Rail Regulation as meeting the requirements of Annex IV of the TDLD. The approach was piloted by delegates recruited by Southeastern. The pilot demonstrated that the approach helps trainee drivers attain the required competence level, with delegates passing the formative assessments and obtaining their EU train driver licence.

Assessor competence

In 2019 several companies moved to bolster their assessment process, focussing on assessor development, standardisation and verification. Some examples of work include:

Developing manager and assessor competence

  • By undertaking enhanced in-house verification and attendance at RSSB Non-Technical Skills courses.’ - Stewart Player, Head of Operations, Great Western Railway

Putting assessors on a competence cycle within the CMS to enhance the competence verification process

  • This helps guarantee that a minimum amount of competence verification takes place with a driver, over a defined time period. The company implementing this arrangement plans to audit the verification activity to improve the quality of assessments. The whole process should lead to better informed, engaged, competent (technically and non-technically) individuals.’ - Sean Hutchison, Head of Operational Standards, South Western Railway

Facilitated assessor standardisation and development events

The purpose is to improve the quality of the assessments, focusing on key competence criteria related to error types that have caused or are linked with driver error incidents.’ Sean Hutchison, Head of Operational Standards, South Western Railway

Competence Criteria Review

There is a planned review of the assessor guidance document to support assessors in the workplace. This will be followed by a review of the drivers competence criteria to strengthen the quality of assessments over a drivers competence cycle. The aim is to improve the depth of assessments and give guidance on which evidence capture method best suits each criteria.’ - Sean Hutchison, Head of Operational Standards, South Western Railway

Assessment verification by depot manager

Depot manager reviews the driver manager’s assessments and suggests points that may have been missed or rushed while assessing the driver, along with development points and suggestions to help them improve (RSSB T1142).

Support and mentoring—upskilling managers 

Some companies are reviewing the contact time drivers have with their managers and checking whether managers have the right skill set to improve their drivers’ competence. A key reference here is RSSB’s research project Developing Skills for Driver Manager and Other Operational Management Roles (T1142). The following are extracts from the research covering ‘on-the-job’ development activities for driver managers:

The ad hoc driver manager role

  • Introduced by Southeastern, this is a programme where a driver is selected for the position of driver manager and given a two-year training and development. The aim is to make the role a rotating programme, so that drivers get an opportunity to develop and practice the skills required to be a driver manager and then return to full-time driving duties after two years. As more drivers pass through the programme, the quality of the candidate pool for permanent driver manager vacancies improves.

Driver manager role previews

  • South Western Railway and West Midlands Trains run driver management development days for drivers interested in the role. Driver depot managers host the sessions and talk about the role, dispelling myths and give an honest view of what’s involved.

Secondments to driver manager role

  • South Western Railway offers drivers a six-month secondment to the role of driver manager. The secondee attends courses covering interview skills, assessor training, investigation and disciplinary training. After the six months the secondee can return to the driving grade if they believe the role is not for them. The organisation can return the individual to the driving grade if it becomes clear the role does not suit them.

Continuing professional development days

  • Southeastern holds continuing professional development days twice a year and away days once a year for driver managers. These events allow learning from each other as specific issues to be discussed, thoughts on key concerns and challenges to be shared between depots, best practices to be identified. Such events help ensure drivers are treated consistently across the company. This has also had the effect of improving record keeping as there is greater consistency in how competency records are filed and stored.

Key outputs from the T1142 study include:

Exploring Organisational Barriers that Affect Operational Front Line Leader Performance. This document helps identify how well positioned your organisation is for providing support to front line leaders (such as driver managers). For the following topics, the barriers identified through research have been explored in detail:

  1. Defining the role of the operational front line leader
  2. Recruitment, selection and talent management
  3. Developing the competence of the operational front line leader
  4. Managing the workload of operational front line leaders.

Self-reflective questions are included to help you determine whether the barriers are an issue for your organisation.

  • Leadership Resources Directory which lists resources such as training, courses, qualifications, and websites to help develop front line leaders’ competence. There are also case studies that have been developed by rail and non-rail organisations.
  • Operational Front Line Leadership Checklist designed to identify skills development needs of a front line leader. The checklist consists of a series of knowledge and skill requirements, with accompanying behavioural statements to help rate someone according to a simple five-point scale.

Other industry guidance

Two key CMS guidance documents that are helpful to check your CMS against are: 

Haven’t found what you’re looking for?
Get in touch with our Principal Human Factors Specialist for further information.
Philippa Murphy
Tel: 020 3142 5641
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