The Underload Toolbox

For many years, the rail industry has known that high mental or physical workload (overload) can cause people to make mistakes. However, there has been very little recognition of what happens at times when workload is low (underload).

RSSB conducted a research project to investigate possible mitigation strategies to counter cognitive underload in train drivers. This has led to the development of practical techniques that can be implemented by the GB rail industry.

Throughout the project RSSB engaged with drivers from different operators, including both Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and Freight Operating Companies (FOCs). 

The key theme was that underload is a serious issue in the rail industry. Driver workshops and briefings showed that most drivers experience underload on a regular basis and helped to identify techniques that drivers use to self-manage their workload levels. The result indicated that a toolbox of techniques was desirable and necessary. 

The Underload toolbox developed by the RSSB was evaluated with drivers from two case study companies (South Western Railway and London North Eastern Railway). The accompanying toolbox briefings received overwhelming feedback in relation to improving awareness of the issue and educating participants on how to effectively use the toolbox techniques. Many drivers stated that they had learnt new techniques that helped them to manage their alertness levels. 

To ensure a consistent message is received by drivers across the rail industry RSSB has produced an accompanying video which provides an overview of underload and the toolbox techniques. Driver safety days are viewed as an appropriate forum for companies to present the Underload toolbox and the video.

“The Underload toolbox has helped me feel better equipped to manage underload day to day, I think about underload more now. If I am struggling, I would use the techniques. I think the toolbox is good - clear, conscise and easy to read” - Train Driver, LNER. 

The toolbox has been created to be accessible for all drivers – created by drivers for drivers – to ensure that good practice is shared throughout the industry. However, it is important that all levels within organisations, from directors to the front line, appreciate the importance of managing underload.

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