UK: Passenger Behaviour, Management and Safety

Last Updated: 10 October 2002
Article by Alan Marsden

© Rossmore Group

Those people involved in managing and developing transit facilities - whether it be rail, air or sea terminals - face unenviable challenges with the growth in passenger volumes: an almost 50% increase in UK airports’ usage was forecast by DETR (the Government department now known as the DTLR) between 1998 and 2005, and UK rail travel was predicted to grow around 20% during the same period, without a corresponding growth in the infrastructure or facilities to cope with the increased usage. Issues of safety, operational performance, user-satisfaction and comfort, and intensified regulation will ensure that the sector continues to present its operators with logistical and societal ordeals that few would wish to confront on a daily basis. Whilst technology has undoubtedly lightened the load as far as passenger management is concerned – with the improvement of CCTV, effective PA systems and automated ticketing systems, for example – there are nonetheless significant hurdles to clear in achieving the ultimate operationally effective and safe transit terminal.

As Professor David Canter (1) said: "Not only in major fires, but also in other disasters, it is becoming clear that it is human error or inappropriate human actions which either led to the start of the emergency or turned what could have been a readily manageable problem into a major disaster". Furthermore, recent estimates by the Health & Safety Executive put the proportion of all accidents attributable to human error at 96%! In the wake of well-publicised events over the last 20 years, like the Paddington and Hatfield railway disasters, the Bradford City FC fire and the Hillsborough disaster, issues of maintenance, appropriate equipment and human factors have been brought to the fore, and it is now commonplace for companies and organisations to have a well-developed risk assessment and mitigation strategy, even though the human factors element may still play a relatively small part currently. The UK’s Health & Safety Executive has itself developed a significant resource in human factors and the people involved in this are emphasising the importance to train operators of developing clear and distinctive human factors contingency plans to mitigate the risk of disaster. Many other transit and public sector organisations not only now have well-developed teams of specialists but also make regular use of external experts.

Rossmore-MCA have enabled train-operating companies, mass-transit organisations and large public facilities (including stadia) to provide a safer, more logistically-efficient and operationally-effective environment for staff and users by giving due weight to the human factors considerations – in addition to other design, safety and operational factors. With over 17 years experience in these matters, and with a global reach, Rossmore-MCA are leaders in crowd and passenger management. The following case study illustrates how the consideration of human factors helped a major mass-transit operator improve its management of safety and congestion issues.

The Company

Established in 1975 this multi-million dollar corporation operates a mass transit railway system that satisfies the public transport needs of Hong Kong. The system transports over 800 million passengers a year, with over 2.4 million passenger journeys a day.

The Challenge

The corporation became concerned by the heavy usage of the transit system, particularly during daily peak periods, which was creating severe congestion on station platforms with a resultant dramatic increase in the number of passenger accidents. There was an urgent need to gain a thorough understanding of how passengers behaved when using both stations and trains, to ensure that passenger management techniques were proactive and geared towards creating a safer environment.

It was also felt that station layout and hardware should be given consideration at the same time, especially where this might be having an effect upon passenger flow and throughput.

The Approach

By visiting other mass transit systems (notably in Japan, the UK, France and the USA) an appreciation was gained of how other operators managed their passengers. A further period was devoted to understanding the local culture before embarking on detailed observational studies at each of the stations involved, and on the trains.

These detailed observations concentrated on (a) station platform occupation and behaviour, (b) concourse behaviour, (c) escalator and stair behaviour, and (d) train occupation dynamics. The influences and impacts of station hardware and layouts on passenger movement and flow were also assessed. Extensive video footage was taken, all accident statistics and incident reports were analysed, and a random sample survey of passengers took place.

The Deliverables

The deliverables from the assignment were in the form of a series of recommendations covering all aspects of passenger behaviour, management and safety. These included ‘queue lines’ on platforms, publicity campaigns, signage and passenger information requirements, the use of part-time platform assistants during peak periods at key stations and changes to station hardware and layouts where appropriate. Crucial to the success of the work, Rossmore-MCA carried out extensive training in passenger behaviour and management for station based personnel.

The Results

Following an intensive trial period the ‘queue lines’ have been adopted as permanent features (since copied by a number of other station operators). These have resulted in much more orderly and manageable situations and had a dramatic improvement upon train dwell times. Station behaviour is much more orderly, in general, and there has been a significant reduction in the number of station based accidents to passengers, whilst passenger journeys per day have increased.

The publicity campaigns are now a normal part of the corporation’s PR strategy, customer opinion workshops are held, and a major station improvement programme is under way (to include all the recommendations on hardware and layout).

Rossmore-MCA have continued working with this mass-transit operator both in organisational development and passenger behaviour/human factors areas. Human factors and management and staff impacts on company performance are now firmly embedded into the company’s operating culture and practices, and all of their performance indicators have responded positively to some fundamental changes in approach.

Carrying out work such as this has enabled Rossmore-MCA to draw up an ‘inventory’ of issues that are normally important in considering human factors in crowds – passenger-types, influence of roles and rules, realities of egress, impact of proactive management, cultural influences, management versus control, communications/information and signage, conflicts of authority, ergonomic impacts, de-individuation (lack of self-awareness), organisational relationships and occupation dynamics. It is clear that there is a similar mindset among operators of mass-transit facilities which betrays some concerning features: there is a degree of complacency amongst railway operators – albeit this is beginning to give way to acceptance of the need to give human factors a greater focus; an apparent and slowly-diminishing disconnect between operational issues and passenger safety; a lack of proactive involvement and an apparent absence of good human-factors training for managers and staff; a lack of recognition of behavioural dynamics in station design and layout; conflicts between ‘commercial’ and ‘safety’ features; a lack of behaviourally directed analysis of passenger accidents; the fact that the major emphasis on ‘customer service’ is not always aligned with ‘customer safety’; a concentration on passenger flows rather than behaviour or occupation dynamics.

The lessons learned from this work have translated successfully into subsequent projects for UK based operators – it is clear that the challenges faced by mass-transit companies are globally similar in nature, even though the execution of human-factors solutions might require a cultural ‘spin’. Almost all of the rail, mass-transit and airport operators around the world are dealing with inexorable user-volume growth at the same time as tightening regulation and limited opportunities for their facilities’ physical extension (due to the price of real-estate and the burgeoning environmental lobby).

In reviewing the benefits accruing to the company from the interventions of Rossmore-MCA, it is clear that operators in the mass-transit industry can enjoy many advantages from a human-factors assessment: improved design of facilities, better able to cope with the unexpected; signage, visual and aural information that enables the free flow of users through the facility, safely; compliance with prevailing health, safety and legislative parameters; the optimisation of the human-machine interface, particularly in respect of the operation of the facility; improved entry / egress capability based on behavioural considerations; a more flexible approach to staffing, to deal with demand-peaks; more satisfied users resulting from improved operations; a more motivated and informed staff, following on from human-factors training; reduced staff turnover; fewer accidents and the avoidance of potential disasters.

Whilst the interventions from user-flow computer-simulation models, advanced design tools and intricate market research techniques have undoubtedly made massive impacts on the safety records of the world’s transit operators – and indeed those of stadium and big-building operators – there is little doubt that the missing piece of jigsaw resides in the under-used area of user behaviour and human factors. The growing pressure from regulators for operators to ‘cover all their bases’ will undoubtedly mean that this will become the focus for the next few years – reducing accidents, giving greater reassurance to staff and exuding confidence amongst the user-base.

(1) Canter.D.(Ed) (1990), Fires & Human Behaviour, David Fulton Publisher, London

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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