Are trains’ Driver Cabs designed for Drivers?

Are trains’ Driver Cabs designed for Drivers?

Are trains’ Driver Cabs designed for Drivers? 600 361 Spii
drivers cab train

At first it could sound like a strange question. But if you follow me until the end, you will see it is not.

Take the automotive and work machine industry for example. For many years they have been the leaders in technology-driven innovation, without considering much that the final goal was to make the user happy. 

All the decisions were driven by the applications: if you needed to move the arm of an excavator, you needed a command lever. They would then position the lever in a reasonable place in the cab, barely considering how the driver would reach it. That’s all.

Human-Centered Design in Auto and Machine Work

Year after year, these industries find new ways of incorporating technology into their products, to support faster, lighter, more efficient, and smarter vehicles. And its companies have slowly begun to take a more “User Centered Design” approach.

The result is a total revolution that, during the last 25 years, has finally taken into consideration the Human factor in the choices related to technology and design.

Look at how cars have changed:

During the years, the driver’s visibility has been improved by reducing the size of the frontal area and the dashboard (do you remember that the car’s hood was totally visible from the front seats until the 90s?). Moreover, commands are now where you have your hands: on the wheel and on the side.

Same story for the “heavy equipment” from the work machine industry:

In the 90s’ model, you can see that most commands are in front of the driver, and the gear levers are near the wheel. In more modern solutions all the commands are on the right side, with a double benefit: granting more visibility to the front and allowing a natural position for the driver’s hands.

As we can see, in these industries the natural evolution has led to a more human-centered design, and todays products are extremely oriented towards the well-being and the satisfaction of the driver.

Is it the same for the trains’ driver cabs, though? Let’s see:

Clearly, despite the many improvements visible, it is not.

Why isn’t the train industry so oriented towards ergonomics?

Firstly we need to consider a major difference between these industries: trains’ life is much longer than the one of cars.

Cars and heavy equipment would be completely obsolete after 25 years of usage, and the models in the pictures we saw before are separated by 4 or 5 generations of intermediate solutions. The majority of trains, on the other side, after 25 years of usage are still in service: the old one in the first picture above is just one generation older than the second, and they are currently used on the same line for the same kind of service.

As we can see, from an engineering point of view there are a lot of improvements, and also the shape and the design are more sexy. 

But from the human-centered point of view, there is still a lot to improve: the size of the frontal area is more or less the same, with no particular improvement for the driver’s visibility. And despite a semi-circular shape in the modern versions, the most important commands are still in front of the driver. 

There clearly is an important gap between the User Centered Design applications in railway and in other industries, probably due to the long life of trains.

And so we have an answer to the original “strange question”: trains’ driver cabs are not completely designed around the driver.

This doesn’t mean that they are designed in a completely wrong way, nor that they totally lack ergonomics. In fact, if you think about it, cars and work machines were used and appreciated as well, even before the changes that occurred in the 90s.

But in these industries today, the Human Factor is taken into much greater consideration, with a clear improvement in the driver conditions that result in more comfort and less stress. Which ultimately mean more safety and better performances.

So the bad news is that train drivers still have to do their work in an environment that is not fully ergonomic and adapted to their needs yet.
The good news, though, is that in the trains’ driver cab design there is a lot of space for improvement in the next generation of vehicles.

What do you think of all this? Do you have a different opinion? Which improvements would you like to see in trains’ driver cabs?
Let us know in the comments.

See you next time!

  • Germano Maraviglia 25 November 2020 at 05:28

    Certainly train driving cabs are far far away from centred around the driver’s role.
    It is comforting to see that industries are more and more aware of the problem and want drivers input, but often the need to have more space for customers behind the driving cab, pushes designers to make cabs tighter and smaller.
    Cabs designs are complex but shouldn’t be. There are few things a driver concentrate on when driving; the first and most important is visibility, the other is the control’s levers and buttons required for the movement of the train.
    Even in the newest cabs (like the one pictured above) the breaking/accelerating controls, are on the desk still, right in front of you, and the action of stretching your arms to reach them is there still.
    In the era of high technology, were buttons and levers can be positioned everywhere, why is it not possible to design a train driving chair with buttons and levers at the end of the armrests? (Like the ones found on some excavators cabs for example)
    What should be in the line of vision of a driver, together with the speedo and an ample field of vision, should be a simple warning light that something needs your attention. The train should then be brought to a stop to check what is going on. We need to stop stressing drivers with time keeping (there is much more to talk about the latter, but that’s another matter not to be expanded here)
    Someone needs to start thinking outside the box.

  • I am somewhat surprised about what I read above. I have been working with a rail business company for several years and was responsible for the build up of the topic of drivers desks for trains. I was part of the European Drivers Desk program which cumulated into the UIC612. Members of the work group were train operators, train manufactureres, designers and of corse ergonomics. We had uncountable discussions on the question of ergonomics and what kind of solutions would be possible in the total context of train operation. You can not compare the operation of a car or truck or tractor with a train. The total system railway brings in multiple specific aspects.
    Example master controller (accelleration and braking) – you do not have a drive by wire solution since for operational and safety requirements the controller is connected to the main brake pipe. How do you want to integrate the valve and main brake pipe into the arm rest of the drivers chair?
    Example visibility – other than in cars all information is integrated into the drivers display so that from the operational point of view an outside visibilty is not required. In other words, you could position the train driver anywhere in the train in a separate compatment since all he needs to see and has to control are the instruments. Here a good visibilty is just something nice to have.
    Besides that if controllers are preferable and so easy to integrate why does a car still have a steering wheel? This is nothing more but history since in the old days this was necessary from the mechanical point of view. Why are there still not cars on the roads with joy sticks to control them?
    Talking about ergonomics of the steering wheel. Did you ever try to control the button and levers on the steering wheel when driving through a curve with all the elements being upside down?
    Talking about ergonomics of control displays of cars. Do you know all the menues, how to control them to do all the settings possible and do you know all icons that might pop up when something is wrong?
    Solutions are always compromises out of multiple aspects which are to be consiedered one by one in its specific context.
    That someone should start to think out of the box is a nice comment that might receive a lot of cheers.
    My suggestion is to digg into the topic in depth to understand the total context. Be assured, ergonomics is on the agenda!