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The independent London newspaper

Tube horror of driver in ‘automatic mode’

Incident in which woman, 78, was dragged into tunnel after her bag was caught in doors may have been caused by repetitiveness of driver’s job

07 September, 2018 — By Tom Foot

A TUBE driver whose train dragged a pensioner 100 metres along the platform and into a tunnel may have fallen into an “automatic mode” through the repetitiveness of his job, a report has said.

An investigation suggested the driver may have ­suffered “inattentional blindness” and was not properly registering what he was seeing.

The report says is a new phenomenon among people whose day-to-day tasks and functions are steadily being replaced by technology.

The 78-year-old woman, who got her bag caught in the doors, received multiple bone fractures and injuries to her right leg during the accident on the Notting Hill Central line platform on January 31.

She was discharged from hospital on March 1 and is said to be still recovering from the horrific ordeal.

A detailed report from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch said: “As the doors were closing, she had her bag ahead of her, which swung the bag forwards into the carriage. The doors then fully closed, trapping the bag along its top edge, just below the handles.”

RAIB said it was a common “expectation” by the public that obstructing the doors will lead to them being reopened. In fact the Interlock system – that alerts the driver something is in the doors – will only detect items thicker than 6mm.

The report continued: “As the train moved off, the passenger was unable to free herself. Within four seconds, she had fallen down and was being dragged along the platform. Someone on the train who was next to the door tried to open the doors by hand, but was unable to do so.”

It took 10 seconds after the train started moving for the emergency brake to come on and six seconds after that for the train to fully stop. The woman was found under the train 15 metres into the tunnel and it took more than one hour to free her.

RAIB said the tube operator had worked for London Underground since September 1998 and was originally a guard on the Northern line. “There was no indication of intoxication nor statement of impairment on the part of the train operator,” the report said.

A possible reason for the driver not seeing the woman was a “phenomenon” known as “inattentional blindness” – when long-serving staff can become “accustomed to ignoring” unusual events believing they are not actually happening, it said.

The report added: “A phenomenon known as ‘inattentional blindness’ can occur in this type of visual search task when actual targets (ie people trapped in doors) are relatively rare or unexpected. Research in this field shows that even for trained and experienced operators, about one-third can fail to notice a target, despite the fact that they may be looking directly at it.

“The train operator had never been involved in such an incident before, although he had experienced several false alarms with other objects (eg newspapers) trapped in doors. The task therefore fits the criteria for inattentional blindness in that ­targets are relatively rare compared to non-targets.”

It added that train operators have relatively low workloads now with new computer systems and this means the research had shown that it was “possible for people to enter an automatic mode of responding, associated with faster reaction times but reduced attention and more errors”.

The train operator had at previous stations been “processing information automatically”, relying on his own experience of the time between closing doors and departing, “with little conscious attention to the task”. It concluded: “The RAIB has made five recommendations and one learning point, all addressed to London Underground. The recommendations concern the detection of objects by the train’s door systems, how the design of the task, equipment and training can influence train operators’ attention and awareness, and the use of emergency stop facilities on platforms.

“While there is no evidence that the train operator was impaired by drugs or alcohol, the learning point concerns the importance of following procedures for drug and alcohol testing where relevant.”

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