Considering the several stakeholders involved, communication and coordination inside and outside the train are very important to ensure effective railway safety performance. In this first of a two-part story on railway communication and coordination, SCT’s Mario Pierobon explores the importance of railway safety critical communication and coordination, and the way crew resource management has been adapted to improve communication and coordination in the railway industry.

Safety Critical Communication

Safety critical communication is the transmission of information that is important to the safety of railway workers and passengers. When conducting safety-critical communications, there is a need to clearly state messages and verify that others have understood what is being said as well as all the actions that are expected of them. When at the receiving end, it is useful to repeat what has been heard, outline the understanding of any required action, and clarify anything there is uncertainty about, states a 2017 Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) document entitled ‘Safety Critical Communications: The manual of RSSB’[i]. “Safety critical communications must have a common structure and a professional tone. We should think of it as agreeing a contract. This should be similar to what we would do when buying a car, renting a flat, or signing an employment contract,” says RSSB. “Good safety critical communications have a four-part structure: opening, information, actions, and confirmation.”

Communication is a crucial aspect of railway employees’ jobs and contributes to overall railroad system safety, affirms a 2007 US Department of Transport (DOT) report entitled ‘Communication and Coordination Demands of Railroad Roadway Worker Activities and Implications for New Technology’[ii]. “Roadway workers communicate with dispatchers to acquire and release authorization to occupy track, as well as to communicate track problems that may require speed restrictions to be put in place or track to be taken out of service. They also communicate and coordinate with other roadway workers or supervisors and with train crews. Some of these communications are prescribed by formal operating rules, and others are informal. Both types of communication facilitate work across railroad crafts and contribute to the overall efficiency and safety of railroad operations Communications primarily occur over very high frequency radio channels and impose a number of challenges,” says the DOT report. “Roadway workers may work alone or in groups. In either case, communication plays a significant role in enabling them to accomplish their work objectives, as well as in enabling them to establish and maintain safe working conditions.”

There are various barriers to effective safety critical communications. Barriers arise from three main sources: environmental conditions; the nature and quality of the equipment being used. and the way in which one speaks, says RSSB[iii].

Coordination of Activities

In the railway environment, collaboration, synchronisation, and the coordination of activities as well as the ability to share information uniformly and transparently anywhere and anytime are essential to ensure safe and efficient rail traffic, point out Rebecca Andreasson, Anders A. Jansson and Jessica Lindblom in a 2018 academic article entitled ‘The coordination between train traffic controllers and train drivers: a distributed cognition perspective on railway’[iv].

Indeed, in the railway industry, close communication and coordination is often required between personnel in the signal and mechanical departments to track down the source of abnormal system behaviours. Oftentimes, for example, the system may exhibit problems that occur intermittently, making it difficult to track down. In those cases, close interaction is required between signalmen and mechanical department personnel to determine whether the problem results from a malfunction of onboard cab or wayside equipment, according to the DOT.

Resource Management

Over the years, crew resource management (CRM) has emerged in the railway industry as a training and management method to improve safety critical communication and coordination. According to a 2007 publication by Australia’s Rail Safety Regulators’ Panel (RSRP) entitled ‘Guidelines for Rail Resource Management’[v], CRM training is a form of human factors training that aims to provide operational personnel with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to manage themselves and available assets more safely and effectively. CRM began in the aeronautical industry in the 1970s after a series of serious aviation accidents resulting from the ineffective management of available assets. “The philosophy and training approach used in CRM has since become the accepted model for developing applied human factors skills amongst frontline operators in many high-risk industries,” says RSRP.

CRM training was first developed to meet a practical and pressing need. Accidents were occurring not because crew members lacked technical competence, but for reasons associated with human and team performance factors, according to RSRP. “CRM had the objective of providing pilots with non-technical skills to complement their high technical proficiency, covering topics such as teamwork, leadership, communication, situational awareness, effective judgement and decision making, and workload management. A model for delivering initial CRM courses subsequently evolved in which the training experience and process were as important as the individual learning outcomes,” RSRP affirms.

As an adaptation CRM, the goal of railway resource management (RRM) is to ensure that frontline operators have the skills needed to operate safely in all situations, according to RSRP. “As with any form of training, to design, develop and evaluate RRM training properly it is necessary to clearly define these competencies – the specific interpersonal skills, behaviours and attitudes associated with safe, proficient performance,” says RSRP.

In addition to RRM training, it is necessary to have ongoing RRM communication throughout a company. Information about RRM should be circulated to the workforce through internal communication channels (intranet, newsletters, etc.) which reach management, employees, and relevant unions, says RSRP. “It is important that information about the purpose and benefits of RRM continues to be made available beyond the initial Communication Strategy employed to introduce the concept of RRM. This information will help maintain the profile of RRM amongst current rail safety workers, keep them up to date on RRM program initiatives and also ensure that new employees in the organisation can easily find out about RRM,” says RSRP. “A range of media can be used to provide Information, including hard copy (printed brochures, circulars etc.) or soft copy, for example on the company intranet or website. General information can be supported by special reports and updates on RRM activities, for example articles or feature stories in newsletters, company magazines or websites links.”

Summing Up

To improve safety critical communication and coordination inside and outside the train, RRM has been developed and implemented in the railway industry as a training and management method. In the next of this two-part story, we shall explore assertiveness, the importance of cooperative communication, and the role of mobile communication in the railway industry.


[i] RSSB, Safety Critical Communications: The manual of RSSB, November 2017,
[ii] Department of Transport (DOT), Communication and Coordination Demands of Railroad Roadway Worker Activities and Implications for New Technology, November 2007 
[iii] RSSB
[iv] Rebecca Andreasson, Anders A. Jansson and Jessica Lindblom, 2018, the coordination between train traffic controllers and train drivers: a distributed cognition perspective on railway
[v] RSRP, Guidelines for Rail Resource Management, November 2007.