New publication: On the role of teamwork in railway operations

Although most of us travel by train from time to time, few think about the complex organisation of work needed for maintaining a constant flow of train traffic with as few disruptions and delays as possible. In Sweden, train traffic is executed mostly by the work of train traffic controllers and train drivers. While traffic control is performed remotely from within a control room, the train drivers do most of their work from the train cab when safely operating the train through switching points and signals. At a first glance, these two roles may seem to be unrelated to each other, and they indeed have quite different responsibilities. However, it is the controller who makes the strategic plan for how the traffic should run that the train drivers then executes. Viewed like this, the respective work tasks of a traffic controller and train driver are very much dependent on well-functioning communication and cooperation between the roles. In a recent publication, I report on work practices employed in everyday work by traffic controllers and train drivers and emphasise aspects relating to communication and cooperation. The paper was presented at the Computer-Human Interaction Research and Applications (CHIRA) conference some time ago and is titled “We’re doing this together”: An In-depth Analysis of the Teamwork between Train traffic controllers and Train drivers.

In my analysis, I identify well-functioning aspects of work and also some challenges in the workers’ possibilities to establish and maintain successful cooperation between them. In short, the study, based on observations and interviews, presents three themes of findings.

  • The first theme relates to feelings of trust and collegiality between traffic controllers and train drivers. They have rarely met but they regularly talk on the phone in work matters and refer to each other as colleagues. “We’re doing this together”, as one of the participants put it. 
  • The second theme concern an underlying relational distance between the roles. This affects the relationship and their prerequisites for establishing and maintaining successful cooperation. Being committed to distinct organisations and the fact that their work is distributed all over Sweden makes it challenging for them to visit each other at work. This has resulted in a limited understanding of each other’s work situations and what challenges they face. Along with the separate responsibilities described above, this gives cause to traffic controllers and train drivers holding different priorities, which in turn generate potential misunderstandings and conflicts in their attempts to communicate and cooperate. 
  • The third and final theme relates to the implementation of new technologies and their effects on information distribution within the controller-driver dyad. Historically, all information has been held by the traffic controller who is in charge of the overall traffic flow while the train driver had access only to information about the train (s)he was currently operating. This is now starting to change as the train cabs are equipped with technology aimed to support the driver with real-time traffic information. This is in many ways helpful for the drivers to be in control of their work. However, the fact that new technology has entered the controller-driver dyad affects information distribution within the dyad and the established work practices no longer function as they used to. This has caused conflicts and created obstacles for cooperation in railway operations. 

The paper ends with a discussion on critical areas in need of further attention to remedy the challenges identified and to improve the possibilities for traffic controllers and train drivers to successfully coordinate and cooperate.

Rebecca Cort

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