Tom Meacock, Client Director, and Emily Thorne, Emily Catlow & Lizzie Rawlinson, Human Factors Consultants at Atkins explain how user-centred design can enhance how we think about, use and operate the railway…

We’ve all been there. Stranded at the back of a long queue, waiting to check in for a flight; squeezed onto a train that’s running far later than it was supposed to; or desperately trying to hail a taxi in the rain. Travelling is something we all do, and being a passenger is familiar to everyone. Yet no matter what kind of transport you take, the experience of being a passenger is often unpleasant. Delays, discomfort, and disorientation are all too common.

It doesn’t have to be like this. And thanks to improvements in technology and in the ethos of transport management, things are changing for the better. It should be reiterated why it’s worth being passenger-centric in the first place. After all, if transport depends on infrastructure, vehicles and engineering, doesn’t it make sense to focus on those instead? We tend to think of transport as serving the public. But that’s not the way we experience transport. The public is always made up of distinct individuals, each of whom have distinct needs. A retiree visiting their grandchildren will have different requirements to a daily commuter, who in turn will have different demands from those of schoolchildren. Unless we consider these passengers as individuals, we can’t come close to giving them what they need. Only by connecting with your passengers and gaining insights into their behaviours can you create a truly beneficial transport system.

Compare this humanised approach with the all-to-often used traditional method of starting with the engineering. Better trains and infrastructure may make your journey time marginally faster. But if there are insufficient seats, no Wi-Fi or mobile connectivity, or no ability to connect to alternative modes of transport for the ‘last mile’, for example, these improvements may be more than offset by the poor experience and ultimately drive customers away. Only by connecting with your passengers and gaining insights into their behaviours can you create a truly beneficial transport system.

So how can you gain insights about your passengers? Data-gathering gives us greater knowledge about how transport is actually being used than ever before. Whether air, rail, or road-based, transport providers must harness this data intelligently in order to develop better designs. How do passengers move about the terminal? Where do they spend the longest? What hinders their progress? Understanding these processes can point to the changes which would make a genuine difference to travellers.

But data is not the be-all and end-all to indicate how transport is being used. So much can be gained by observing passengers anonymously, preserving their privacy while gaining behavioural insights. Monitoring passenger flows in stations and terminals, for example, can yield powerful insights about how to reduce overcrowding, long queues and stress.

And data about infrastructure can be used to improve passenger experience. For instance, sensors placed to monitor the maintenance requirements of trains can be used to inform passengers of potential delays to their journey. If your intelligent infrastructure is telling you that it needs some maintenance work, you can use this information to understand the implications for the passengers and forewarn them of the impact on their journeys, giving them time to prepare and preventing nasty surprises.

Ultimately, everyone has different preferences when travelling. And what you want when cycling is different to when you’re in a cab or on an aeroplane. Regardless of such differences, having a passenger-centric mindset is the best way to ensure that these needs are always being considered. Data can be used to create a personalised service, across all modes of transport. By harnessing the insights of data, we can make all modes of transport better, and ensure that the passenger is always at the heart of the design, no matter what.

Behind the scenes of the railway

Take a snapshot of a typical station and you’ll see passengers travelling for business or leisure; you’ll see train drivers and crew about to embark on short and long journeys; and you’ll see shops and restaurants teeming with staff and customers. Beyond the station, there are those who control the movement of trains and freight along the network, and those who ensure that all is running smoothly. At the heart of every aspect of our complex railway system is a human, an ‘end-user’.

As such, success in designing and operating a safe and efficient railway stems from our ability to understand the end-users who bring the network to life.

Signalling control

How have the advances in technology and automation changed the working environment and task requirements of those who ensure our railways operate safely, efficiently and effectively? Railway signalling started with railway policemen using hand signals to communicate with train drivers, managing the movement of trains across the network. Fast forward through years of technological development and the use of track circuit block signalling, today’s railway is operated hundreds of miles away from the trackside. Computer-based workstations aim to automate route setting for traffic management, and may eventually interface with passenger information systems, emergency response and incident control.

Yet automation does not, and will never, mean ‘replacement’; the human operator shall remain ‘in the loop’. The control systems and rooms of the future must support operators’ physical, physiological and psychological capabilities, new technology, and the demands on our rail systems.


One of the greatest challenges for our railway is the ageing and degrading network, with many signalling assets reaching end of life. Our current projects shouldn’t just replace existing assets but find robust solutions to last the next 50 years. By using digitally enabled systems to monitor trackside components for degradation and faults, we significantly reduce the time maintenance staff have to spend trackside to find and fix faults.

Station and control room staff 

Essential to the smooth running of the railways is the design of station control rooms to enable control room staff to manage safe operations around the clock, including the Night Tube, in normal and emergency modes of working.

Designs must also optimise operations beyond the control room throughout the station, for example at Euston, traffic flow and vehicle movements are assessed through the station, along with the impact of construction activities. By appraising and changing current routes, and installing signage, marking and announcements, it is safer and more efficient for driver and the public to access and move around the station as vital upgrade operations continue.


Essentially the primary purpose of the railway and its infrastructure is to move passengers through and around intuitively and effectively. While commuter rail travel may often be a negative experience when met with changing timetables, delays, or strikes, shouldn’t rail journeys be a pleasurable experience, not a source of stress and frustration? Our team have worked on projects in Hong Kong where the key client driver was ‘Passenger Satisfaction’.

The focus should not merely be on creating a positive experience through a reliable service, but on putting all end-users first though inclusive design, for an entire spectrum of needs, whether physical, cultural, neurodiversity and more. Therefore, it’s not just about providing step-free access for wheelchair users. Truly user-centred design goes unnoticed; no one should feel that they receive special assistance or treatment.

Placing the human at the core of the railway isn’t just for customer service; it radically shapes the whole process of travel. From implementing engineering works to making movement as frictionless and enjoyable as possible, starting with the human helps to ensure that each process is designed, engineered and operated with the needs of people in mind.

Atkins is a registered consultancy with the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF).