Enhancing safety management
HOF regulations, standards and tools

Human Performance
HOF in practice
Home 9 HOFs in practice 9 Category: HOF in automation

HOF in automation

About this topic


Automation as the holistic or partial takeover of the control of tasks and regulation of processes has great potential in our everyday lives: It can increase productivity and safety, and improve health and wellbeing in many ways, as well as help tackle many issues in our lives and society. However, automation, per se, by itself, does not necessarily achieve any of those benefits. To fulfil the potential benefits of automation it must take into account the human element. Too often automation is developed and deployed in a vacuum, without properly considering it in light of human and organisational factors (HOF). In such cases automation may not only not improve things but can actually have a negative and detrimental impact. 

But there are also barriers to innovation and automation. The social challenges on the one hand, around society’s acceptance of change and new technologies. These challenges may be reduced with the evolution of society towards the acceptability of autonomous technologies. And on the other hand economic challenges. Another difficulty lies in the cohabitation and interoperability between new and old technologies.   

Relevance to rail 

Railways are experiencing an automation revolution potentially leading to the following opportunities: 

  1. Optimisation of normal operations – highly reliable automation can optimise the operation so that capacity and performance are improved under routine operations, whilst also ensuring consistency and improving safety. 
  2. Global optimisation – automation can consider a broader range of variables than a human operator and so provide for optimisation over a larger area. 
  3. Standardisation of rules – automation can drive the standardisation of rules and provide a business case for investment to remove unnecessary variation in the railway. 
  4. Redistribution of work – reliable automation can reduce operator workload. 

The possible and probable evolutions of the sector inevitably raise the question of skills development for the workforce. Examples include: the reduction in the need for traditional skills; acquisition of skills related to new technologies; transition and cohabitation between traditional and new skills; staff loss of control over parts of the system due to automation.  

It is a myth however to think that automation will eliminate humans from the socio-technical system in railways. The human contribution is not removed, but rather transformed to a greater or lesser degree depending on the level of automation employed. In all but autonomous systems, humans will still be involved in monitoring during normal operations and operating during degraded modes. There is also human input throughout the system lifecycle, from design and certification through maintenance and regulation. The integration of Human and Organisational Factors (HOF) will still be necessary.  

If human input to the system is not considered there is a threat to the safe and efficient operation of the railway. 

Approaches and models 


if there is significant uncertainty or unplanned variability about either the domain the product or system is expected to perform in, or the way functions are to be performed, but the system is capable of dealing with those uncertainties with little or no reliance on a human, then the system is considered as having ‘automated’ those functions. It not only has the ability, but it is given the authority to behave autonomously in performing one or more of the core functions without relying on human input”[1]

[1] Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors “Human Factors in Highly Automated Systems”, White Paper, 25 April 2022

Automation Models 

Automation can be applied to four broad classes of functions: 1) information acquisition; 2) information analysis; 3) decision and action selection; and 4) action implementation.[2]

[2] Parasuraman, R., Sheridan, T. B., & Wickens, C. D. (2000). A model for types and levels of human interaction with automation. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cyberenetics—Part A: Systems and Humans, 30(3), 286–297.

Fig. 1: a) Levels of automation relating to human information processing (Sheridan& Verplank, 1978; Parasuraman et al., 2000) and b) grades of automation (GoA) relating to train operation (Braband, 2021, UITP, 2018).

Flemisch et al[3] proposed a classification of human–machine systems, ability, authority, control and responsibility between humans and machines :

  • Ability: having the means and resources to execute control.  
  • Authority: what the actor (people or technology) is or is not allowed to do. Both the authority to exert control, as well as the authority to change the control authority; 
  • Control: acting on the situation so it develops in a preferred way; 
  • Responsibility: being accountable for the consequences of control. Responsibility is assigned before control is exerted and evaluated afterwards 

[3] Flemisch et al, Towards a dynamic balance between humans and automation: authority, ability, responsibility and control in shared and cooperative control situations, Cogn Tech Work (2012) 14:3–18

Fig. 2: Mühl, K. (2021). Automated Railway – Operation as Usual: Best Practice to Achieve Situational Awareness. Automation myth busting series.


Automation Myth Busting Paper#2 The Changing Role of Staff in Automated Railway Operation and why Human Cognition is Here to Stay

Automated mainline railway operation is challenging the traditional role of the operational staff ensuring safe and punctual service. Nevertheless, there are sound operational, economic, regulatory and societal reasons for valuing and maintaining central contributions of human staff to railway operation in future automated service. Instead of a linear transferal of tasks from the human to the automation technology a human-machine collaboration setting becomes apparent that enables both, automation-driven benefits in terms of capacity or energy consumption and benefits in terms of efficient human intervention in case of operational uncertainty, where human decision-making and communication skills are key to safety.

read more

Automation Myth Busting Paper#3 Automation and mental workload

Automation paradoxically has the potential to both increase and decrease mental workload, depending on the circumstances. Furthermore, decreasing workload can actually put an operator into an underload state, which is just as bad for performance as overload. We have learned these lessons in the aviation and, more recently, automotive industries; as accident reports demonstrate, we are now starting to see their impact on the railway with the introduction of Automatic Train Operation and other automated systems. The key in helping an operator to work at their best is to find a way to optimise their mental workload – which may mean thinking differently about automation.

read more

Automation Myth Busting Paper#4 Teaming between humans and automation

Due to technological advances, automation is nowadays no longer regarded only as a tool for humans but, due to the execution of complex tasks, is increasingly discussed in terms of a team member. This article describes how successful teaming can optimally be realized so that the strengths of the human operator and the automation are brought to bear. The decisive factor is a human-centred work design that focuses on the needs of human operators. An example from air traffic control is used and findings are transferred to the handling of existing interlocking technologies in the rail industry. First tendencies of teamwork between signallers and automation are already emerging today. In the future, this new form of teamwork can be further developed with the help of the introduced model on the key aspects for a successful teaming between humans and automation.

read more

Safety Reporting at Renfe

What are the key HOF issues? The Strategic Plan of Renfe contains an ambitious transformation programme based on digitalisation and safety culture. A key aspect of the programme is the development of a confidential reporting system of near misses that...

read more

Join us

Are you interested in HOF?



Do you want to learn about Human & Organisational Factors? Safety culture, non-technical skills, health and safety, more?

Join us on this international and diverse network which captures in one place the valuable and enriching information and material, either academic or practical railways-oriented, on the organizational and human factors that you need.





Are you involved in HOF activities?

You want to learn about Human & Organisational Factors? Safety culture, non-technical skills, health and safety, more? 
Join us on this international and transversal network which capitalizes the valuable and enriching information and material, either academic nor Railways oriented, on the organizational and human factors that you need. 

Are you an HOF expert?

Are you a Rail Human and Organisational factors expert, a Rail Safety expert, a Railway Head of safety, or other? This space is made for you. Here, you have access to confidential information and can even create or participate in a discussion forum to initiate conversations and exchanges with your peers.