Engineering alertness in the human brain

Our work to minimize deaths due to trespassing hinged on two key behaviour changes:
– break overconfidence of trespassers as they enter the tracks.
– make them alert, give them better judgement as they cross the tracks.

While researching what types of stimuli help in making the brain more alert, we uncovered one research done by Stanford University on music and alertness.

The research team showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory. Peak brain activity occurred during a short period of silence between musical movements—when seemingly nothing was happening.

This is a breakthrough finding. During our observations, we noticed that while motormen honked on seeing trespassers, it was usually a single long whistle. But now, armed with this knowledge from new sciences, we recommended a short staccato horn.

This, we were certain, would work more effectively in intruding into the listener’s consciousness and making them more alert.

After the unarguable success of our experiment at Vadala, Central Railways has decided to introduce staccato horns within its system. This is great vindication of triumph of new sciences and how it can definitively cause fundamental change in human behaviour.

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For those who would like to save a click, here’s the coverage:
CR alters tune to curb death on tracks
Roana Maria Costa I TNN
June 10, 2010

Mumbai: The decades-old practice by motormen, of giving a single long horn on spotting a trespasser, has changed. People walking on the tracks will now get to hear a staccato noise (unconnected notes, short and detached) after experiments conducted by a Mumbai-based consultancy firm—working to minimise the number of deaths on tracks—revealed that people react much faster to staccato horns than a long, continuous sound.

FinalMile Consulting CEO Biju Dominic told TOI that when two trains are active on parallel tracks, a “cocktailparty effect’’ sets in and whistles of two oncoming trains—which would be at the same pitch—would fuse to become one. The trespasser cannot distinguish between two similar sounds. “Having different pitches increases the alertness of the brain as seen in a study by the Stanford University,’’ said Dominic.

Wadala has already seen a drop of around 55% in deaths due to trespassing after the implementation of several measures by Central Railway. “At Wadala, the number of deaths during the day has reduced by 70-75%, but the number of deaths in the night has remained steady; we are now looking at newer ways to deal with it,’’ he said.

Some other interventions complement the staccato horn, like warning posters at platform ends. Whistle boards are also strategically placed at 120 metres so that the motormen can honk at vulnerable locations.

In the last fortnight, these measures have been extended to other stations such as Kurla, Kalyan, Mulund.

3 thoughts on “Engineering alertness in the human brain”

  1. Iam a motorman on Western Railway Churchgate for 13 years. Motormen are disturbed by train hooters they use to alert tresspassers. this should be stopped to alert the tresspassers,because it became a chronic habit for tresspassers to wait for train hooter and then make a decision. but cut off this unnecessary noise then let them have their own alertness. There is no scientific data available about the shock and stress on the motormen in tresspassing track deaths. and it is a professional hazard and requires compensation for motormen both in monetary and job change aspects, it involves a serious labour dispute process and workmans compensation because of this disaster.please send in your comments to

  2. Thanks for sparing the time to stop by and voice your thoughts. Much appreciated.

    We noticed that it is only at a particular distance that the trespasser will respond to the honk and not cross the tracks. Our recommendations that the motormen honk at 120M gives a clear purpose to honk, thereby eliminating honking at other times, which may be disturbing to the motorman.

    I couldn’t agree more with you about the trauma that motormen undergo because of this. We are hoping that our measures, including warning signboards and reference points on the tracks, combined with the strategic honking can save lives and the trauma caused to brave people like you.

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