Ghost trains: Australian rail in the early stages of the global COVID-19 pandemic

Publication Name

Human Factors and Ergonomics In Manufacturing


The rail industry, as with all sectors worldwide, has faced disruptions due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. This commentary considers how rail organizations in Australia have engaged within the early stages of the crisis, outlining the challenges faced and how they were addressed. Relying on our observations, and anecdotes obtained from others across the Australian rail industry, we identified a range of impacts including determining service delivery levels (and the associated running of “ghost trains”), implementing hygiene measures and social distancing, managing training and medical assessments, and changes in the behavior of passengers and members of the public (including aggression toward staff and increased instances of trespass). Within rail organizations, we saw changes to communication and control structures, new challenges related to balancing priorities (managing risk of rail accidents vs. virus transmission risk), and negative impacts on job design offset by increased informal support for frontline workers. Importantly, from the crisis, we gained new insights about culture. Finally, we provide recommendations regarding how the Human Factors and Ergonomics discipline can support safe and effective rail operations in the context of both widespread crises such as pandemics as well as the less dramatic, but ever present, shifts in the physical, social, economic, and political environments in which rail organizations operate.

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