Home Grigore Havarneanu: “the human factor can be the weakest point, but also the strongest one.”

Grigore Havarneanu: “the human factor can be the weakest point, but also the strongest one.”

Name: Grigore Havarneanu
What he wanted to be when little: a medical doctor
Now: a psychologist specialized in traffic and transport
A quote: “Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication”



Let me tell you first that I didn’t know who interviewed who, at least in the beginning. Grigore is a railway psychologist, and one part of our brains goes to assume that, as a psychologist, he had to analyze me. He was asking me some things related to my ambition and to my recent changes in life and career. Of course, when Railway people get together is like when brothers or cousins that love each other a lot finally get together after months, they speak about railways and what makes each of us like them. “(Referring to Dévé) it’s clear that it’s not a blog”, he states. Well, Grigore is one of the people that know why Dévé was born, and why it’s a magazine, and not a blog.

 I said in my last article talking about trains that safety and security are like twin brothers, they’re difficult to distinguish. Mostly in Spanish.

It’s a nice metaphor, “twin brothers”; I have to say this tomorrow in my conference…


Go. But you have to mention me.

(Laughs) “According to Dévé, safety and security are twin brothers”


(Laughs) As a psychologist I’m pretty sure you have faced many clichés, like people expecting something from you just because you are a psychologist.


These are old myths and old reactions. Since I was a student, I’ve heard things like “you are a psychologist, so you can read my mind”. False. Another issue is that many people don’t make a distinction between a psychologist and a psychotherapist. There are countries where people consider that all psychologists are psychotherapists. France is a good example for this. As a psychotherapist you have to solve people’s problems, you have a nice couch at home where people lie down and talk. I find it funny that I often have to say: “no, not all psychologists are psychotherapists”, some of us are here to solve other societal problems, for example problems in business, like the railway. Railway is at the end of the day a business. Railway operators want to run trains smoothly, not to have any problems, they want to sell more tickets, to have more satisfied customers and so on. So they don’t want to have problems. Where do problems come from? From various disruptions, which are linked to safety and security. A disruption is often caused by a risk or threat. So you see, there are psychologists in other fields besides “healing people”.

 Well, I would like first to ask something about you because you are a psychologist and, you know that in the railway field people tend to think that there are only engineers, engineers and engineers. And then you come, being a psychologist. I wonder what does a psychologist do in the middle of railway engineering.

I could even answer you more generally. You know what a psychologist does in the transport sector? It’s even more interesting. Because this question is very frequent, you know, when I get asked about traffic psychology, road and rail traffic, and transport psychologists.


Traffic psychologist, now you’re killing me…


The problem is that the railway, like many other things, is a social technical system; you don’t only have infrastructure and technical elements, you also have humans, human beings involved in the system with different roles everywhere.



 And for now it is like that. You’ve got more and more automatization, many tasks that are replaced by machines…

Even driving…

As with self-driving cars, we are talking about driverless trains, in the sense that you have driverless systems like the shuttle with no driver. Automated metro lines already exist we anticipate a similar automatization on main railway lines. We are also in the transition towards self-service, meaning that passengers make more things in their own. For example, they buy their ticket on the Internet or at a ticket machine and they have less interactions with the railway staff. And rail companies have less employees at stations.


You are saying that there are each time less people.

Yes, but people cannot disappear like that. Despite the digitalisation and automatisation trend, you cannot just remove the people from the system. The jobs of these employees will change and new jobs will appear in line with the railway changes and new needs of the business. What railway people did one hundred years ago is not what they are doing today or will do tomorrow. In the beginning you had the mécanicien de locomotive, now we have the train drivers with different skills, and probably in the future we won’t have train drivers anymore, but there will still be humans in the system, doing other type of jobs. So where you have humans you can also have psychologists, because the human factor can be the weakest in the system.


The weakest! 

Yes, the weakest in the sense that it is a source of errors, it is a source of violations of the rules and this can have a negative impact on safety; also from the security point of view, experts say that the human factor is the weakest point in the security chain as it can be a source of vulnerability or the factor behind a threat. 

That sounds denigrating!


If you take the other point of view you find precisely in the human beings the biggest and most important potential for positive changes and evolution, progress and so on; so you have two sides in the human factor. One is our unique abilities compared to machines, and the other, our potential weak points for different type of tasks. But the strongest point of the human factor is that it’s the only element in this system that has an active brain with creativity, emotion and anticipation skills. This is something machines cannot do for now.


Machines will never win us.

And you can see it in security, in intelligent surveillance; you can see all these things like intelligent CCTV, and video analytics to detect suspicious behaviours, to be able to track people inside a crowd. Basically, these systems active today are hardly better than a human being, or a well-trained human being. Their own eyes are able to detect things in a much more accurate way. Machines are learning, but they are learning from past behaviours and basically only at a cognitive level. They are able to learn and recognize various patterns. But will ever a machine be able to sense an emotion? To have feelings?


Hope it doesn’t.

Probably not yet.

Well, there are people that fall in love with robots.

Well, but does the robot fall in love with them?

Well, the robot can emulate the behaviour of somebody in love…

You are right about it, and a bit wrong as well. You see Sophia, Pepper and all the robots that express emotions. These robots are taught to read emotions and to respond according to the emotions they read. In the future will the robots be able to express their own emotion and actually feel it?


(I give up) Tell me when was the first day was somebody decided to put psychology in transport.

You know that big changes and technological progress came from wars, so from the information I have, this type of psychological activity in transport regarding risky activities began in World War II. Initially, when psychologists were used to select the soldiers in aviation, because not every soldier could become a pilot, so basically you wanted to select the people that performed best for different types of tasks. Then the same thing happened when cars became popular and many individuals stated to drive on public roads. What I can tell you that quite recently, maybe 20 or 30 years ago traffic psychology emerges as an important discipline. Psychology starts to study the human factor in road traffic because it is the transport area  where you have the highest accident rates, you have plenty interactions between road users, so you need to understand the behaviours and to optimise them in order to reduce the fatalities and injuries…


Let’s talk about you. What makes a psychologist go to transport. 

Well, it’s quite simple: When I was a psychology student I was looking for a topic for my research, and I discovered this discipline in the Netherlands during by Erasmus mobility. I attended a course called “The social psychology of road user behaviour”. I found this very interesting, and added to the background I had before in Romania at the time —in Eastern Europe you should know that the level of road safety is quite poor, you have lots of uneducated road users, poor infrastructure, lots of accidents—, so you need to better understand the behaviour of people to have more effective interventions. So this fascinated me, and that’s how this started. Then I tried to expand this area of research in Romania where I worked as a traffic research psychologist for a few years. Later I was involved in a EU research project dealing with the prevention of suicide and trespass in the railways, and this is how I moved to France and started to work for the railway industry.


What does psychology do in railways then?

 You can work in safety, and you can work in security. In safety, the main idea is to reduce the number of accidents, and the behaviours that lead to accidents. In security is even more interesting because you can study everything that is not technical. Security is very often linked to physical security, to technical solutions that we put in place, cameras, detectors, and other security devices, but there is also the railway staff. You also have lots of human measures to increase security. You can train human staff to detect suspicious behaviour and to intervene.


How do you do that? 

Wait, wait. You have to create a security culture. You have to raise the security awareness. In Europe the threats have changed, we have an increased number of attacks, and more diverse types of attacks against the railways. And basically people have to learn how to adapt to the new context. It’s not like it was before, we have to acknowledge that the threats exist and we have to stimulate cooperation between the railway staff, police, authorities, the members of the public and so on. This is changing, and we have to raise a culture, we have to communicate, to raise public awareness. As well, we have to increase the feeling of security. This is very important. It’s not only the objective security level, but also what people see and perceive around them.


Let’s talk about the evolution of threats. Today threats are way bigger and more numerous than in 1980. For example, vandalism, graffiti. I don’t know if that happens in Paris, but here people stop the train in the middle of the track to paint it. It’s like 20 guys that stop the train, and the train driver cannot do anything. And when the police arrives, there’s nothing more to do. I think that the response to the threats has to adapt to the level of the threats…

 The response to the threat has to adapt to the threat itself…


I think the threats are moving faster than their responses.


The main challenge with the threats is that perpetrators behind the threats are human beings which are creative, which understand the responses that you put in place and they try also to be ahead of you. The threats are evolving and that’s why you have to be ahead of them. You need to foresee their next move to protect your assets.

 So railway operators need more people like you!

 People like me and other researchers can bring new insights about the phenomenon, for example what do these graffiti writers really want. Why do they come to the railway, why this change in their modus operandi? The threat of graffiti on the railway property is not new; what changed maybe is that now they also want to do it on moving trains.


“It’s not only objective security,

but also what people see and perceive.”

They seem obsessed with the trains!

This behaviour is more extreme. Understanding the roots of the phenomenon is important, because you can find more innovative and creative solutions. With respect to vandalism and graffiti, in the railway security we usually have a zero-tolerance policy, where graffiti equals vandalism and there is no graffiti as art. The solution to that is physical protection measures, detection, and prosecution. After detecting the vandals, we try to arrest them or prosecute them and hope that this will stop in the future, that they will not come back, and the phenomenon will cease. But it’s not working like that, so it’s time to ask “can we do some type of positive intervention beyond enforcement?” Something to reduce the opportunities for illegal graffiti and encourage positive graffiti like artistic events or contests. The railway operator can organise a railway graffiti day where it invites some graffiti artists to draw on a wall or an old train. This is one way in which you can stimulate positive graffiti. What people don’t know is that in the graffiti writers’ community, there is a lot of respect between them. So basically if you have a surface that has been already covered by a street artwork, no other writers will come to destroy it. So sometimes it’s better to have a nice drawing than to have ugly tags of graffiti everywhere.


The SNCF did it…

 Indeed, some operators did it. In fact this is an initiative that came from the street art movement, where some walls were enabled for legal painting, and this contributed to reduce vandalism. This innovative approach had positive consequences for the urban environment and encouraged street artists to cover white surfaces with “good” graffiti while reducing naturally the opportunity for vandalism.

Photos: Esther Bolekia