A recent survey reveals that the digital transformation of competency management systems is set to have a major impact on the future of the railways. JAMES FOX, commercial director at 3Squared, discusses the revolution ahead

The rail industry has a very good record for safety. Rail Safety Statistics 2014-15 published by ORR show that there were no passenger fatalities in train accidents in 2014/2015 – for the eighth year in succession. There were four workforce fatalities during the same period as a result of workforce on the mainline, although this figure has improved by 3.2 per cent on the previous year and improved by 17.4 per cent year-onyear over the past 10 years.

One of the major challenges facing TOCs and FOCs, however, is to ensure that their Competency Management Systems are in line with increasingly stringent ORR Regulations, whilst ensuring they maintain the highest possible standards of safety on the railways.

The overall model for train driver training across the UK railways has remained largely unchanged since the 1970s. It is still based on a comprehensive block of theoretical learning, structured around the Rule Book and Traction Manual, followed by an extensive period of on-the-job training. Although this model has been very successful over the years, it focuses mainly on the development of technical skills and does not formally include the development of non-technical skills or human factors.

Recently, this has been addressed by the introduction of the RSSB’s RS/100 guidance, which recognises the importance of having a rigorous evidence-base to establish what competencies are needed and how they will be measured, rather than relying on instinct.

The guidance outlines how competency management should be made up of technical skills, non-technical skills and functional skills. To put this into context, it has been revealed in post-incident evaluation that non-technical skills (NTS) are key contributors to events which risk passenger or driver safety. In the ORR definition, these are defined as ‘a particular set of skills and knowledge relating to how risks can be managed at the front line’.

The guidance recommends the development of a competency scale with a series of levels – from beginner to expert as a more valuable approach than simple ‘tick box’ compliance. It also highlights the need for richer competency profiles that incorporate large amounts of data, whilst highlighting the limitations of the recording and analysis using traditional paper-based systems. Within this, RS/100 recommends introducing technology as the most effective solution for monitoring an individual’s progress.

How technology can help rail and freight operators to improve their competency management systems is a subject which has been researched in some detail in an independent study that we commissioned and which was carried out by rail consultancy Leadership Champions (UK) Limited. This has been the most comprehensive survey of competency management systems in the rail industry to date, involving 18 of the 23 train operating companies. The purpose was to gain a better insight and understanding into different competency management styles, following the introduction of our RailSmart Competency Management System in 2014. Ultimately, we wanted to identify ways in which technology can enable the industry to improve performance and ensure compliance. The survey, which was benchmarked against the RSSB’s RS/100 as the standard for driver training and competency management, posed a series of questions to TOCs and FOCs that focus on many different factors that affect competency management.

The findings
The survey revealed a favourable response towards the use of digital technology. Seventy five per cent of respondents said that digital transformation of the CMS platform was essential or imperative to their business needs while 55 per cent of those surveyed stated that the shift to a digital workforce was vital. The survey revealed that many of the organisations’ leaders saw digital transformation as an essential part of their future. In addition, the research revealed that 48 per cent of respondents used only digital platforms for competency management and assessing training information. However, traditional paper-based assessments and interviews were still being widely used to interact with drivers on safety, route knowledge and critical decision making. Half of respondents (55 per cent) admitted that their organisation has very little access to CMS data from across their business.

The report highlights how three types of performance can lead to errors. Skills-based performance, where a person routinely carries out highly practised activities with little conscious effort. The second is rule based performance: this is where there is more mental involvement and operators apply previously learned rules to tasks that they have been trained for such as talking a driver past a red aspect, the third is knowledge-based performance, where an individual has more mental involvement, such as attending an accident scene or counselling staff.

The report found that there are many different approaches to competency management throughout the rail industry. It highlights how a performance-based approach has the most advantages as it enables organisations to better understand the potential risks they face and to be better informed about the implications of those risks in every day operations.

The research identified that there are different preferred learning styles for drivers (and assessors), which were largely dictated by the age of the candidate. Three different approaches were identified: activists – who have a very open minded approach to e-learning. Theorists, who are less accepting of e-learning and like to understand the theory behind competency management before adopting something new. The third group are pragmatists. They are the most resistant to change and to embracing new technology. The profile of the workforce and their resistance to change could be a reason why technology uptake has been slower in some organisations.

Human factors
An important point revealed by the survey is how essential human factors (or non technical skills) are to ensure safety in the rail industry. When asked if the TOCs and FOCs monitor and manage technical skills, the majority were found to have an established level of discipline. However, when it came to monitoring and measuring human factors, the results were lower than expected with the majority of organisations found not to monitor and manage this.

The RSSB (Rail Safety & Standards Board) has provided guidance material on human factors, which are often referred to as soft skills. However, the research shows that this is often overlooked. The biggest benefits to teaching non-technical skills has been found to be the awareness and management of risk.

To address the need for non technical skills development, it has therefore been recommended that staff learn how to deal with a range of situations, including those which are out of the ordinary, helping them to manage threats, such as freak weather conditions and human errors, when they occur. Building up a complete picture and profile of an individual can require regular monitoring, assessment and analysis and it is here that technology can help to ensure assessors receive an accurate picture of an individual’s competency levels.

It is our firm belief that to deliver Risk Based Training Needs Analysis (RBTNA) effectively, the rail industry needs to capitalise on the increasingly large amount of data available, so it can continually measure and improve driver and assessor performance.

Digital rail competency management systems
In line with the RSSB’s indication that technology needs to be employed to monitor and assess competency management in the future, we were approached two years ago by East Midlands Trains to develop web-based mobile App technology to enable the company to better manage employee competency. Previously, EMT had used paper-based systems or legacy Lotus Notes to record and monitor vital safety assessment processes. This was inefficient, both in terms of the time and the fact that systems could not easily alert the operator to assessment deadlines, therefore running the risk of an employee not being assessed when required. Working with East Midlands Trains, 3Squared developed RailSmart EDS (Employee Development System) as a competency management tool to address all these issues. Benchmarked against best practice guidance, it provides TOCs and FOCs with the tools to proactively manage and improve the capabilities of staff, with the aim of improving safety on the railways.

RailSmart works via an iPad app, which allows for complete assessments to be carried out on the move, whilst monitoring train crews at work. The web component simultaneously gives verifiers the ability to check the quality of the assessments being conducted against criteria set out in ORR and RSSB standards. This is now being used as a competency management tool by a number of rail operators.

New technology, like RailSmart, now offers a real possibility that competency management can be taken to the next level, giving TOCs the opportunity to better monitor and assess these essential non-technical skills

There are some key lessons to be learned from the survey. The report concludes that everyone within an organisation should take responsibility for competency management rather than using a ‘command and control’ structure focused on individual roles.

The report highlights how safety depends on effective co-ordination of key people in the business and not just on the actions of drivers or assessors.

The survey identified that competency management strategy needs to be a continuous process. Like all business strategy, it should be reviewed and updated annually against the three to five year vision to ensure that competency management improves and evolves.

The research has identified that to be successful, a competency management strategy must relate to the organisation’s vision and strategic objectives, be implemented in daily processes throughout the organisation and – most importantly – take into account human factors, for all operations-based personnel. The survey found that a lack of awareness of standardised human factors, definitions and guidance is continuing to impede competency management across the rail industry.

It is anticipated that this survey will help to communicate knowledge gaps and facilitate a learning revolution in competency management – utilising both hard and soft skills. By doing this, the ultimate beneficiaries will be customers and rail employees in ensuring a safer, more productive railway that meets the challenges and demands of staff in the future.”

James Fox is commercial director at 3Squared

For more information visit: www.3squared.com/ products/railsmart-suite