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.
The evolution towards Human Centered Design in the automotive and machine work industries
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!