Mind the gap: The crucial role of software testing in the railway industry

07 Nov 2023
Why rail industry needs software testing

The rail industry is embracing digital transformation, including AI and the Internet of Things (IoT), but the full benefit of this transformation can only be actualised if it functions properly and efficiently. Malfunctioning software can rapidly throw operations off track, putting passenger safety at risk and impacting operational reliability. Software testing is critical to ensure that this digital evolution continues to enable safe and reliable service delivery to rail passengers.

The railway industry is a specialised sector with unique requirements, safety standards, regulations, and operational requirements. In a recent survey we conducted among railway industry professionals, we found that malfunctioning software has the most severe impact on passengers compared to brand reputation and financial loss.

To bridge the gap between industry objectives and user needs, software testers must possess specialised railway knowledge. The survey also revealed a lack of emphasis on software testing within the industry, with the majority of respondents rating the current level of emphasis as low to moderately important.

Three key findings of the railway industry survey

We surveyed nearly 70 railway professionals to gain insight into the state of specialised software testing services in the industry.

Our key findings were:

  • There is a lack of emphasis placed on software testing during the implementation of applications/technologies, with a majority reporting a low or moderate level of emphasis. Slightly more than 10% rated it very high.
  • Nearly 90% of respondents report the use of internal testing teams when rolling out software upgrades and updates. Nearly 60% make use of third-party testing vendors.
  • Safety and operational efficiency, both aspects that impact rail passengers directly, were rated as being impacted the most significantly by software malfunctions, followed by reputation and financial performance.

The importance of railway industry knowledge

The railway sector's unique requirements, safety standards, and operational intricacies demand software testers with specialised knowledge. Here are nine reasons why railway industry knowledge is crucial for software testing:

  • Safety-critical systems: Railway software failures can lead to accidents and loss of life, necessitating an understanding of safety protocols and standards.
  • Regulatory compliance: Testers must adhere to railway industry regulations, such as those imposed by agencies like the European Railway Agency.
  • Domain-specific terminology: Effective communication requires knowledge of railway-specific terms and concepts.
  • Operational knowledge: Testers should grasp train scheduling, signalling systems, and track layouts to design meaningful tests.
  • Integration challenges: Understanding interactions between subsystems is vital for comprehensive testing.
  • Fault tolerance and redundancy: Testers must be aware of mechanisms for system resilience.
  • Performance and reliability: Knowledge of railway-specific performance testing and reliability engineering is essential.
  • Environmental considerations: Testing must account for varied conditions, including extreme temperatures, rain, and snow.
  • User experience and accessibility: Testers should understand the needs of both operators and passengers, especially those with disabilities.

A C-level strategy for software testing

To ensure the safety and reliability of railway operations, a comprehensive testing strategy is essential. CIOs and business professionals must understand the strengths and weaknesses of testing methods. The following strategies are crucial:

Test-Driven Development (TDD) and Behaviour-Driven Development (BDD):

  • A proven solution to this challenge centres on adopting a test-driven software development (TDD), behaviour-driven development (BDD) methodology, or even better a combination thereof. In either of the methodologies, software developers and testers work together to write tests before writing the actual code. This approach aligns perfectly with the railway industry's need for rigorous testing by establishing clear test cases at the outset of a project, so that developers can ensure every feature they build is thoroughly tested. Moreover, BDD encourages developers to consider the end user's perspective, fostering better alignment between business objectives and user needs.

    It’s advisable to use both approaches as the one is more granular and the other more user-centric. Both increase output, shorten development cycles, and include automation as a key strategy.

  • Test Automation: Automation expedites regression testing, addresses time constraints, and accelerates the delivery process.
  • Frequent Deployment: Automated regression tests save time and resources, allowing for swift and consistent testing of frequent updates.
  • Accessibility Testing: Incorporate accessibility testing to ensure that digital platforms and interfaces are usable by all passengers, bridging the gap between business objectives and user needs. Ensuring accessibility for passengers with disabilities is not just a legal obligation but also a commitment to equitable services. By proactively addressing accessibility concerns, the railway industry can bridge the gap between business objectives and user needs.

The future of software testing in the railway industry

As the railway industry embraces automation and autonomous trains, software testing will play a pivotal role in verifying safety and reliability. It will be essential for testing collision avoidance algorithms and AI decision-making.

The industry's future will focus on safety, data security, AI integration, interoperability, accessibility, and automation. Skilled software testers will remain indispensable for ensuring the reliability and efficiency of railway operations.

In this dynamic landscape, software testing isn't merely a necessity – it's the linchpin holding together the future of the railway industry. Software testers, armed with industry knowledge, innovative strategies, and a commitment to accessibility, will play a central role in shaping the railway industry's technological advancement and user-centric services.

Bruce Zaayman

Sales Director

Bruce is an Expert in Performance, Automated, and Functional Software Testing solutions and has been with Inspired Testing since its inception in 2016. He is based in London, UK, but used to serve as the Practice Head: Quality Assurance for DVT in Gauteng.

Bruce was part of the pioneering team that spearheaded DVT’s international expansion into the UK, shortly after which Inspired Testing was launched. His expertise allows him to provide clients with excellent testing solutions that integrate frictionlessly into their existing business processes.

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