Mind the gap: software testing in the railway industry

02 Nov 2023
The importance of software testing in the rail industry

In the fast-moving railway industry landscape, where technology, operations and complex customer dynamics intersect, the role of software testers has become increasingly pivotal.

As the industry continues to embrace digital transformation and new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), the need for robust software testing has become more critical than ever.

Driven by technological advancements and increasing demands for safety, efficiency, and innovation, the railway industry is undergoing significant transformations in terms of software testing.

For example, we’re seeing a growing reliance on software-intensive systems to manage train operations, signaling, and passenger services. This necessitates rigorous testing of safety-critical software to ensure fault tolerance and resilience, addressing potential system failures that could have catastrophic consequences.

Another notable trend is the adoption of IoT (Internet of Things) and sensor technologies in railway infrastructure, generating vast amounts of data for railway operators. Software testing now extends to data integrity, security, and analysis, making it crucial to safeguard against cyber threats and breaches while still efficiently managing this data.

Moreover, the industry is increasingly looking to leverage AI and ML for predictive maintenance, demand forecasting, and route optimisation. Testing these AI-driven algorithms involves data validation, model accuracy, and real-world simulation.

All of this points to software testers needing to have an innate knowledge of the railway industry, understanding its unique challenges and recognising opportunities to innovate.

Only then can we properly bridge the gap between railway operators' business objectives and the end users' needs, all the while adhering to the strict time, budget and operational constraints of the industry.

Industry knowledge is key

Inspired Testing recently conducted a survey of top rail industry professionals in the UK, Ireland and Europe, gauging the challenges, requirements, and expectations of software testing professionals offering ‘Specialised Software Testing Services in the Rail Industry’.

Some of the results exposed exactly why generalist software testers, or those with relatively little experience in the railway industry, struggle to deliver the right solutions that make a meaningful contribution to the complex web of systems and software used by the industry. The railway industry is a specialised sector with unique requirements, safety standards, regulations, and operational considerations.

The majority of respondents indicated that safety and operational efficiency are the areas most affected when software issues arise within the rail system. These issues have significant implications for passengers who depend on the rail network for their daily activities.

Considering the impact of software quality on passengers, it is surprising that more emphasis is not placed on software testing during the software update and upgrade process. More than 65% of respondents considered the emphasis placed on software testing in the railway industry for enhancing operational systems to range from very low to moderate, with only slightly more than 10% reporting a ‘very high’ score.

Considering the complexity of railway systems, it’s no surprise that more than 80% of respondents consider railway industry knowledge to be ‘very important’ to ‘extremely important’ for software testers.

Asked which stakeholders are involved in the testing of software updates and upgrades in rail systems, nearly 90% of respondents reported internal testing teams and close to 60% reported utilising third-party testing vendors. The majority of respondents rate the use of outsourced software testers as at least very important which is indicative of the many benefits third-party software testing outsourcing offers. Incorporating third-party software testers allows flexible and scalable access to expertise that is not available in-house. Third-party software testers have a range of skills and experience that would be hard to match for any business not solely focused on software testing, and engagements can be scaled up and down depending on the phase of the software upgrade cycle.

Nine reasons why railway industry knowledge is crucial for software testing

  • Railway systems are safety-critical, meaning software failures can lead to accidents and loss of life. Testers must grasp railway safety protocols, standards (e.g., EN 50128), and risk assessments.
  • Regulatory compliance is vital as railway operators face oversight from agencies like the European Railway Agency. Testers need to understand and adhere to these regulations.
  • Domain-specific terminology is essential. Testers must grasp railway-specific terms and concepts to communicate effectively.
  • Operational knowledge is crucial for designing meaningful tests. Testers should understand train scheduling, signalling systems, and track layouts.
  • Integration challenges arise from subsystems like PRAMSS. Testers must comprehend these interactions for comprehensive testing.
  • Fault tolerance and redundancy are key. Testers must be aware of these mechanisms and test them effectively.
  • Performance and reliability are paramount. Testers should be versed in railway-specific performance testing and reliability engineering.
  • Environmental considerations are necessary, given varied conditions. Testers must account for extreme temperatures, rain, and snow.
  • User experience and accessibility/inclusiveness considerations matter. Testers must understand operator and passenger (especially physically-challenged users) needs for testing user interfaces and ensuring both safety and satisfaction.

A C-level strategy for software testing

In the railway industry, where safety and reliability are paramount, software testing is an indispensable part of our operations. Each testing method offers unique advantages and challenges. To address these challenges effectively, a comprehensive testing strategy that combines multiple methods is often necessary.

As CIOs and business professionals, it is your responsibility to ensure that software systems not only meet regulatory standards but also exceed passenger expectations for safety and efficiency. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of these testing methods, we can steer your organisations toward software excellence and a safer future for rail travel.

Be one step ahead: One of the primary obstacles for software testers in the railway sector is the perceived lack of time for comprehensive testing. Rail operators often face tight schedules, with little room for delays. This pressure can lead to the temptation to cut corners on testing. However, the consequences of overlooking testing can be dire. Software glitches can cause service disruptions, safety hazards, and even financial losses.

Find solutions: 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.

Increase coverage, faster: Another key component of a successful software testing strategy for railways is test automation. While manual testing has its merits, automation offers a more efficient way to conduct regression testing and expedite the delivery process, addressing the challenges of time constraints in the railway industry.

Peace of mind with frequent deployment: Regression testing, the process of retesting modified software to ensure that existing functionalities remain intact, is likewise critical in an industry where updates are frequent. Automated regression tests can be executed swiftly and consistently, freeing up valuable time and resources. Moreover, automation can assist in accelerating the overall test cycle and shortening the time to market, and can be run concurrently and across various environments, reducing the testing phase's duration and expediting the software's release.

Make it user friendly: Last but certainly not least, accessibility testing is an integral part of software testing in the railway sector. Developers must proactively incorporate accessibility testing into their test cases, ensuring that digital platforms and interfaces are usable by all passengers. This includes testing for screen readers, keyboard navigation, and compatibility with assistive technologies.

Stephen Brookes MBE, rail policy adviser to Disability Rights UK, has strong views on the appropriateness and value of provision and testing of software in the transport sector.

“At Disability Rights UK, we are regularly asked to assist with research into the design and implementation of new software operating systems and are generally frustrated by what we see as key failings in the process due to the lack of software testing expertise, the complexity of systems integration and shaky customer facing consistency in the user applications in the transport industry,” says Brookes.

“For example there is a general lack of understanding of the complexity faced by various disabilities in the use of Ticket Vending Machines which, while using similar software, fails at delivery point by inconsistent matched testing of hardware which fails those with sensory, dexterity, and learning disabilities.”

By addressing accessibility concerns, the railway industry not only fulfills its legal obligations but also demonstrates a commitment to providing equitable services for all passengers, thereby bridging the gap between business objectives and user needs.

Closing thoughts

The railway industry stands at the crossroads of technological advancement, with software testers playing a pivotal role in ensuring its success. Bridging the gap between railway operators' business goals and end users' needs is a complex process, further complicated by time constraints and the need for rigorous testing.

Looking ahead, the railway industry will see a heightened emphasis on automation and autonomous trains. Software testing will play a pivotal role in verifying the safety and reliability of autonomous systems, including collision avoidance algorithms and AI decision-making.

Software testing in the railway industry is also evolving to address the complex and interconnected nature of modern rail systems. The future will see a continued focus on safety, data security, AI integration, interoperability, accessibility and automation, making skilled software testers indispensable for ensuring the reliability and efficiency of railway operations.

By adopting a test-driven development approach, leveraging test automation, and addressing accessibility concerns, software developers can drive the industry toward safer, more efficient, and passenger-centric railway services. In this dynamic landscape, software testing isn't just a necessity; it's the linchpin that holds together the railway industry's future.

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.