Systems Thinking and Rail Level Crossings

In the area of rail level crossings, researchers have highlighted an inadequate understanding of behaviour at rail level crossings and, more specifically, a lack of understanding of the interactions between road users (including pedestrians) and the crossing infrastructure that give rise to unsafe behaviours (Edquist et al. 2009). It has been argued that interactions such as these are best understood using a systems thinking approach (Salmon and Lenne 2015; see Box 1.1). The reductionist approach has been criticised not only because it examines component parts in isolation, but also because it artificially separates the rail and road infrastructures, with each managed by different parties. It is contended that the solution to the rail level crossing problem lies in embracing systems thinking approaches to firstly better understand the problem, and then apply this understanding to design new solutions that optimise system functioning.

Based on this, the aim of the programme of research described in this book was to apply a systems approach to the problem of rail level crossings. This chapter will set the scene for these applications by outlining the systems approach and demonstrating it in the rail level crossing safety context.


A systems thinking approach to safety involves taking the overall system as the unit of analysis, looking beyond the individual and considering the interactions between humans and between humans and technology within a system. This view also considers factors relating to the broader organisational, social or political system in which processes or operations take place. Taking this perspective, safety emerges not from the decisions or actions of an individual, but from interactions between humans and technology across the wider system. In the rail level crossing context, this means that decisions and actions made at government, regulatory and rail operating company levels all play a role in collisions. This calls for a more comprehensive approach to analysis and design that goes beyond road users and the physical rail level crossing environment.

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