Just like everyone else, many rail staff use a mobile device such as a phone or tablet, sometimes as a vital part of the job, or perhaps just to stay connected with colleagues throughout the day.

However, they can also be a distraction from the job in hand and increase the risk of safety incidents on the railway caused by errors and omissions by train drivers, dispatchers, anyone working on the platform or trackside as well as those in a control room or office.

The train collision in Chatsworth, California, in September 2008, was believed to have been caused by the driver of one train failing to respond to a signal while texting on his mobile phone. 25 people died.

For situations where people are involved in a safety critical task, there are relevant rules, policies and standards adopted by the company for staff to follow. But relying on compliance alone does not completely deal with the risk at hand. People carrying a mobile device can be tempted to use it in the wrong situation, without realising that the consequences could be lethal.

Following the accident in California, we looked at the size and shape of the risk faced by the rail industry here in Britain, and this led to us developing an education programme aimed at train drivers.

Designed to be delivered in a formal briefing or training environment, it was built with flexibility in mind, to accommodate a range of policies on the ground. Some operators ban mobiles being switched on in the cab whereas others need drivers to be able to use their mobile (in the right situations) as a legitimate form of communication. Elements of the briefing can be adapted by briefers to mould to the particular policies or outlook of the organisation concerned without compromising the consistency of the key messages.

Non-driving staff

Building on the success of the first programme, and in response to further requirements from industry, we have now developed a second education programme specifically aimed at non-driving staff, to improve the understanding of the risk involved. Just like the driver-focused programme, it builds on the Rule Book and individual company policies.

Our research showed that 70 per cent of non-driving staff had been issued with a company mobile, and 40 per cent used it at least once in the working day to talk to colleagues. The situations non-driving staff face may be different to drivers, but the outcome of using a mobile incorrectly could be just as serious.

While working trackside, using a mobile device could affect decision-making and cause errors that could lead to track workers moving outside safe positions of work with the risk of being struck by a train.

Distraction during train dispatch could create procedural errors, increasing the likelihood of a passenger incident, accident, or a signal passed at danger (SPAD).

Using mobile devices while in a control room or office environment could lead to an error or omission being made that could lead to a failure, incident or accident, or distract others doing safety-critical work.

We’ve built the non-drivers’ course so that it can be delivered as a formal classroom-based briefing activity with supporting presentation materials, trainers’ notes, questionnaires and videos, or as a web-ready multimedia course to allow rail staff to do the course individually without supervision.

We have begun raising awareness of the course among trainers, briefers and people working on the operational railway in the roles concerned. The course has been developed through our research, Development of an education programme on the risk of using mobile phones and electronic communication devices in the railway industry (ref T989), which has provided insight into current worker attitudes to, and the prevalence and patterns of, mobile device use.

We have also published findings from the research covering the pilot phase of the course. Three-quarters (76 per cent) of participants found the course content relevant and useful, and 82 per cent felt that the programme would be effective in helping to reduce inappropriate use of mobile devices as well as aiding individual decisions about appropriate and inappropriate use at work.

We also surveyed participants in the pilot phase, measuring attitudes towards mobile device use, workplace behaviours, and understanding of risks involved. Results suggest that the training programme had a positive impact on participants’ learning and awareness of risk, both immediately after the training and after a longer period.

The research has led to a number of key recommendations that can be read in the final report:

• a training reinforcement strategy should be devised by organisations, so that it can be implemented immediately following training delivery, to include refresher courses

• organisations should examine methods of linking the programme to individuals’ competency requirements using the multi-media course and incorporate the classroom-based education programme into new starter training

• all organisations operating in a safety critical rail environment should have suitable company policies in place on mobile device use to support safe working practices, as soon as possible. These policies should be communicated to all staff, including subcontractors, to promote understanding and adherence

• incident data should be used to support the development of a framework relating to the management of mobile device use and distraction, given the increasing usage and reliance on mobile device technologies.

The work was undertaken by RSSB on behalf of Network Rail, train and freight operating companies, infrastructure companies, ORR, trade unions and London Underground through the Train Operations Risk Group.

For more information about either course, contact [email protected] or visit 


Colin Dennis is technical director at RSSB