An engineering student on a placement spent three hours searching through 26 train manuals to find "lavatory seat" - only to discover that the technical term is "hopper cover". His frustrations led him to develop a replacement computer system that has won a software award.
Daniel Harris, working at ABB Customer Support, also found that fitters were modifying new trains back to older standards because their manuals told them the new trains' parts were wrong.
Ian Flynn, project manager for maintenance contracts at ABB Customer Service said that Mr Harris's electronic photos of parts "saved us a fortune". But the company would not be using the rest of the system. "It is very much to be regarded as a prototype," he said.
Mr Harris, who was an undergraduate at Brunel University, was working for the company that makes and maintains railway carriages for the then British Rail. He also discovered that the manuals, which describe the 500,000 parts that make up carriages, were often months out of date because of the constant flow of changes to specifications, for example because of new safety regulations.
Mr Harris, now a postgraduate at Birmingham University, designed a computer system that would allow a change in regulations to reach the manuals within 24 hours. His work won him first prize in this year's Business Software Challenge '90s design competition.
His system, with sound and pictures, helps people, mainly computer novices, to find a part, see what it looks like, where it fits and to gather its documentation.
Mr Harris said: "The system uses hypernavigation linked to colour photos taken with an electronic camera. You can do it all visually. You don't need to know the name of the part or its number."
The competition, whose sponsors include the British Computer Society, Computer Associates and information technologist ICL, is open to student software designers in higher education who create software to solve business problems.