Obituary - John Wilson

August 1, 2013

An academic described as “the father of rail human factors”, who developed tools now widely used by signallers across the world, has died.

John Wilson was born in Greater Manchester on 13 February 1951 and educated at Rochdale Grammar School. He studied for a BTech in industrial engineering and management (1969-73) and an MSc in ergonomics (1973-74) at Loughborough University, later working there as senior research officer and part-time lecturer (1974-79).

Briefly a visiting consultant to the Swedish Packaging Research Institute, Professor Wilson became a lecturer in work design and ergonomics at the University of Birmingham (1980-83), where he also completed a PhD in work design and human factors. His next move was to the University of Nottingham, where he served as lecturer in ergonomics (1983-90), reader in human factors (1990-94) and, finally, professor of human factors (from 1994).

Although he continued in this position for the rest of his life, Professor Wilson also held visiting appointments at the University of California, Berkeley and at the University of New South Wales, and he carried out extensive consultancy work for Network Rail (formerly Railtrack) as a strategic adviser on human factors. He finished his career working part-time as Network Rail’s principal ergonomist alongside his academic role at Nottingham.

A major contributor to his discipline, Professor Wilson was editor-in-chief of Applied Ergonomics and co-editor of a core text in the field, Evaluation of Human Work (with Nigel Corlett; third edition, 2005). He was closely involved in the creation of Nottingham’s Institute for Occupational Ergonomics, its virtual reality applications research team and its Centre for Rail Human Factors, all now part of the Human Factors Research Group.

Yet Professor Wilson’s academic achievements were more than matched by the impact he had on rail safety.

Andrew McNaughton, special professor of rail engineering at Nottingham – and technical director of HS2, the company developing the High Speed Two rail line – called Professor Wilson “the father of rail human factors”.

“Many of the Network [Rail] team joined after studying with John as MSc, MEng or PhD students,” added Michael Carey, head of ergonomics at Network Rail.

“John’s knowledge and drive was instrumental in the development of a suite of tools now routinely used worldwide to predict workload demands upon signallers. He also took the lead in setting benchmarks in difficult occupational safety areas such as maximum acceptable pull forces in mechanical signal boxes.”

Professor Wilson died of pancreatic cancer on 1 July and is survived by his brother Roger and his extended family in Rochdale.

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