Automating Train Operation: Remembering the Past before Looking to the Future

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Greg Morse considers what the implications might be for passengers if trains really are automated, and makes the point that we need to look beyond punctuality and cost to the whole travelling experience.

Think of automation and the future possibilities for the railway are huge.  Industry has already started shaping its own destiny, as illustrated by the Rail Technical Strategy.  This includes a vision for providing customers with tailored information and services, so that rail travel becomes a seamless part of their overall journey – a vision that wouldn't have been out-of-place in any of the pre-war Big Four companies or the post-Beeching modernised British Rail.

The size of the opportunity is limited only by our imagination and capability, and both these things are channelled in the Capability Delivery Plan.  The scale of what's on offer now, and what's emerging from the labs and innovators across the globe, is mind-blowing, and the manner in which it could be applied across the whole rail service will be explored in future essays in this series, including one by my colleagues Olivier Marteaux and Noodhir Sobun – so do look out for those.

But before we get too excited by all this, should we not reflect on where automation is already playing a part in customer security and service?  The degree to which some tasks are already automated in train operation itself – i.e. simply moving trains from A to B – can throw up some useful lessons for us to learn.  So, what do we need to note from the past that can help inform us about the future?

Like millions of people across the country, I travel to work by train. I also use trains – less frequently – for leisure. Though I know I'm taking a risk leaving the house (or indeed staying in it), I expect to get where I'm going on time and in one piece. If you've read our Annual safety performance report, you'll know I'm right to have that expectation.

But if we take safety for granted, do we feel the same about security?

On that score, recorded 'violence against the person' offences went up 19% across all Home Office Forces in England and Wales last year, while recorded 'violence with injury' offences went up by 10%.  Both figures align with the respective BTP increases of 18% and 7%. And some of the increase is down not to a rise in crime, but to a rise in reporting and recording.

In terms of numbers, passenger and public assaults (including harassment) on the railway rose from 4,028 in 2015/16 to 4,476 against the 1.73 billion passenger journeys made that year.

In May 2016 Transport Focus's Passenger perceptions of personal security on the railways noted a rise in satisfaction in this area both at stations (71%) and on trains (78%). The report also recognised that the industry had done much 'to try and improve personal security for both passengers and staff', although 'passengers continue[d] to emphasise the importance of a visible staff presence on the railway and the concern it causes when it is not there'. Indeed, 'a visible staff presence [...] provides important reassurance, helping enhance passenger perceptions of personal security and acts as a deterrent to crime and disorder'. The report shows anti-social behaviour to be passengers' biggest fear, with terrorism rather lower down the ranks at that moment, although it's possible recent events may have changed this a little.

Overall risk associated with personal security is low, but how do we balance the roles of people and technology when things do go wrong?

Driverless' solutions?

There was a time when the fastest land vehicle in the world was a train. Whether you believe City of Truro or Flying Scotsman was the first engine to reach 100 mph, at that time the railway was a pioneer when it came to technology, until other transport modes started to catch up and overtake. Now – as recent news from Australia has re-established – technology has developed to enable full automation of train operations. In the UK the most complex 'driverless' operation is the Docklands Light Railway (DLR)


 Credit: Michael Day

Automatic Train Operations can deliver reliability, high capacity and maximum train utilization. It also removes the likelihood of human errors caused by distraction, boredom, and fatigue. And yet passengers tend to feel more secure when there are staff present – especially when something goes wrong, when someone's taken ill on board, when a train becomes stranded and passengers grow uncomfortable, restless, belligerent.

On the DLR, on-board passenger service agents (PSA) are responsible for operating the doors and leading on train dispatch, but are also there primarily to provide a customer-facing role, taking action or giving aid when needed. They can also 'enhance passenger perceptions of personal security', as Transport Focus might say, and of course help anyone of reduced mobility travelling on the DLR network.

This suggests that, by automating the actual driving or operation of the train, more focus could be given to reassurance and security. But, again, how do we balance the roles of people and technology when things do go wrong?

Managing disruptions and emergency under automated operations

One of the ways we can think about these issues is to look at learning from operational experience. Let’s take one example. One May evening, a train got trapped in a tunnel near Kentish Town for three hours with no external power supply. Three hours passengers waited. Maybe in 1951 passengers would have struck up jolly conversations, had a sing-song and started an impromptu cribbage tournament.  But it wasn’t 1951, or 1961, or even ‘81, when we all might have been a bit more inclined to do what a peaked-capped member of staff told us to do. It was 2011, and the driver – the only member of staff on board – soon found himself out of his depth.

Too many people had operated alarms; too many people were getting hot; too many getting frustrated. He tried his best to reset the alarms and close two doors that had been forced open. But he could only talk to small groups of passengers at a time, as the public-address system had packed up. Passengers had tried tweeting the train operator about the on-board conditions. The trouble – as RAIB put it – was that their pleas were 'not properly evaluated and brought to the attention of those making decisions'. It must have seemed like no one was listening.

The story ends with the arrival of a rescue train while some passengers were climbing down to the track, around 30-to-40 of them having decided to do so.

There are lessons for us all here. The Kentish Town operator learned some of them very quickly, introducing enhancements and additional resources to provide customer service support to controllers handling incidents involving stranded trains.

One of the more general lessons of social media is that there's no patience, everyone's in a hurry and everyone expects 'instant' information.  Another is that information shared by passengers on social media can be extremely valuable in times of operational crisis or incident.

The trouble is the social media aftermath when there's been an incident can just become noise to drown an already overstretched response team. Unless we have the right tools to help us deal with the volume of social media generated by disruptions and incidents effectively. And this means using GPS location data to identify those actually involved quickly and separate the incident picture from the misinformation, formal news reporting, and speculation. Following research by Demos on behalf of the industry, work is currently under way on a system to enable operators to sort and prioritise social media data in these situations effectively, giving real time intelligence to feed in to decision making and communications. 

Even today with social media that link to remote operators, passengers are able to make contact with staff who might have a better overview of what's happening on a train than a colleague somewhere on board. But how do people feel about that and how can this experience be improved? And how can a remote team effectively intervene and respond to an incident, injury or illness? Well, why don't we ask them?

Raising the game on both security and service

The Kentish Town scenario is rare – really rare – but looking back at what happened does prompt other questions.  For example, is our customer service still too driven by a need to get passengers to comply?  As a small step, could we stop being so much about 'no access without ticket', 'no feet on seats', 'no this', 'no that'. Every 'no' has a billion good reasons behind it, but how does it come across to customers?   

At the end of the day – particularly on medium and long-distance journeys – it comes down to making it an 'experience' and giving service. But that word means more than just punctuality and cost. Think back to those old films of named expresses, trains that were like hotels on rails, where long-distance travel was a joy and the embodiment of technological progress. What would a new golden age of rail travel look and feel like for passengers about travelling on automated trains? Again, why don't we ask them? Their answers surely need to play a key part in our preparation and roll out of much longer-term changes around automation. It's also the only way to spell out what an excellent and personalised rail experience' actually means for people.  

Some of the most recent research and innovation in which RSSB has been involved shows progress in meeting some of the passengers' needs, including seating, overcrowding, management of disruption, improvement of reliability. But only by thinking beyond today's needs and shortcomings, and being more daring with established technology, like social media, and emerging technology, like artificial intelligence, can the industry do more than 'simply' keep up with passengers' needs. So, do look out for other articles in this series, which will look at these issues.


In the next article Toni Flint, Principal Human Factors Specialist, considers how to create effective human-machine teams that play to the strengths of the different talents on both sides.

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Greg Morse
Greg Morse
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