I’m a human being, not a human robot
31 March 2016 • Author(s): Daniel Davis, Train Driver, Gloucester Depot
Henry Ford once said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
During my study with the Institute of Railway Operators UK (IRO) some two years ago, I was asked to do some crucial analysis exercises on the causes of the Quintinshill rail accident in 1915 and the Moreton accident of 2010. These accidents happened some 95 years apart. As in both the Quintinshill and Moreton accidents one of the underlying reason for both accidents was ‘distraction’, either by the presence of the two guards in the signal box, as in the Quintinshill accident, or when the level crossing keeper was distracted by a telephone call from a farmer using another crossing as in the Moreton accident. It should be noted that the level crossing keeper at Moreton was described during the court case as an otherwise thorough and exemplary employee. Based on my 24 years operational expertise within the British railway industry, my first reaction pointed rightfully at the lack of modern technology, but that wasn’t all. I would like to share my conclusions with the reader and hope it is of some interest.
I strongly believe that the core route to the majority of incidents is disturbance of concentration; or perhaps I prefer to name it “becoming distracted”. This is the area where I believe we need to be looking when completing any person’s operational assessment, following which we then need to teach these operators about ways in which they can remain focussed on their task. When assessing a person’s ability to undertake a safety critical operational role, surely it requires further assessing that person’s ability to concentrate and remain focussed. One can throw all the technology in the world at the railway, but there remains one fundamental flaw in all the prevention measures: it is the risk factor human being. Wouldn’t it be better to design a bespoke competence plan to an individual driver, within the guidelines of the company policy, and then assess the person on that?
Having completed my investigation, it came as a bit of a shock and surprise to understand that it is only following an incident that such questions are asked: “What did they do over the past 36 hours?”, or: “Are they having problems at home?”. Surely with a proactive mind these are character issues that all assessments should focus on. I mention the word focus as it is that which becomes so easy to lose when we are under stress from work.
Driving trains requires us to focus on many different tasks; sometimes all occurring at the same time such as an Automatic Warning System (AWS) warning followed by a Driver Safety Device (DSD) vigilance warning and the signaller contacting you whilst being engaged in coming to a stop at a station or red signal. Train drivers are often required to multi-task, so with more and more issues to distract from the basic job of getting a train to move and stop it again in the safest possible way, are we able to mentally cope with the increasing demands to focus.
“How can we regain focus whilst working under pressure? Simple, by the means of a ‘checklist’”
We live in a world of great complexity, where even the experts can sometime struggle to master the challenges they face. So how can we regain focus whilst working under pressure? Simple, by the means of a ‘checklist’. This can be of many forms. For me this is in a form of my daily diagram. This enables me to check of stations, and cross it off once at a stand, it also enables me to make notes upon the same with regards signal aspects, or signal numbers. It helps me regain focus even if I do become distracted. It is worth mentioning that even in the most skilled professions using such simple methods has its advantages. It was back in October 1935 when the Boeing Corporation sent their most experienced test pilot Major Ployer P. Hill, on a test flight for Boeing’s model 299. However, shortly after take-off the engine stalled, the plane crashed and killed two crew members, including Major Hill. The investigation revealed that the crash was owing to “pilot’s error”. Major Hill had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism (In those days a modern piece of technology). The newspapers stated “It was too much plane for one pilot”, but as we know Boeings are still flying today. So what ensured their continuing success? A simple ‘Checklist’! Standard procedure for every present day flight.
Having done further studies and understanding basic psychology, I read once that to truly keep up concentration on listening over an extended period without becoming distracted is extremely difficult, not least very tiring. I refer to this as I will explain. Truly listening is also very different to hearing. I simply hear noises around me, someone’s voice, mixed with music or noise from the outside environment. We become easily distracted by things around that are of interest. These distract us and can cause loss of focus on what we are doing or about to do. I once stood watching and listening to crowds whilst awaiting my train on a busy platform. I noticed that if two or more people were engaged in conversation with each other, on hearing the ring of a phone or the sound of an incoming email or text, they immediately appeared to become distracted from the conversation and pick up their phones to have a look. Even when it wasn’t their own phone making the noise! This alerted me to a clear observation: modern technology is available to reduce incidents and accidents, but it also furthers distraction. How can we reduce this? This is what I believe we should now focus on.
“It is better to understand our employees as individuals”
Whilst I strongly believe we need guidelines and rules, surely it is better to understand our employees as individuals. We are then better placed to train and develop them in the specialist role we need them in and then work on removing or reducing distractions in their working environment. Thus reducing or eliminating the risk of an operational incident or accident!
I became inspired by railway history, also rail accidents after reading Peter Vandermark book titled ‘Level Crossings with Stanley Hall’ also having a seek preview of Peter’s Upcoming book titled ‘An Unexpected End of the Journey’ available at the end of July 16′ I owe my newly found knowledge and experience down to this amazing railway/transportation expert.