Alarms are another key component of the rail network, and it’s in this field - traditionally the domain of acousticians and engineers - that the University’s School of Psychology has played such a distinguished and influential role.
“One of the most common responses from people when they hear an alarm is that it is too urgent or not urgent enough,” said Judy Edworthy, Professor of Applied Psychology. “That level of urgency, which is communicated by a range of different acoustic parameters, is crucial to achieving the desired reaction.”
Years of research dating back to 1993 with colleague Dr Liz Hellier has established the pair’s reputation and generated a range of key insights, such as the way human speakers use those same acoustic parameters to indicate different levels of urgency, and that female speakers produce a greater range of urgency responses from listeners than male speakers.
When the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), the not-for-profit company owned by rail stakeholders, identified a range of issues around alarm implementation, they began to work with Plymouth’s psychologists through a series of commercial tenders commencing in 2004. It involved academics travelling the length of the country in trains to observe drivers in action and understand the issues at play.
The result was a remarkably comprehensive set of tools and guidance for rail professionals, including a good practice guide to the implementation of alarms and alerts, covering urgency mapping, alarm confusability, and considerations when implementing speech warnings. There was also an interactive alarm tool, some practical observations on the use of alarms in drivers’ cabs, and a sound library.
The success of the project, evidenced by companies such as Bombardier adopting the technology, resulted in a further project in 2010 when the RSSB invited Judy to design and document a new Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS).