The National Academies

Safety IDEA Project 40 [Completed (IDEA)]

Using Light to Reduce Fatigue and Improve Alertness in Railway Operations

  Project Data
Funds: $99,400
Staff Responsibility: Velvet Fitzpatrick
Research Agency: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Principal Investigator: Mariana Figuiero
Effective Date: 4/25/2019
Completion Date: 10/20/2020
Fiscal Year: 2019

With the advent and increasing prevalence of driverless train operation, dispatch centers are becoming more central to reliable and safe transportation worldwide. Dispatchers are, however, highly susceptible to the detrimental effects of sleepiness causing severe nighttime fatigue and related impairment of work performance. A novel approach to mitigate the effect of sleepiness on duty is the use of red light, which can elicit an acute alerting response from humans at any time of day or night.


The primary objective of this project was to test and demonstrate the effectiveness and the acceptability of combined red and white light for increasing alertness and improving performance in a simulated dispatch work environment laboratory study using objective (i.e., electroencephalogram) and subjective (i.e., Karolinska Sleepiness Scale) measures of alertness and objective measures of short-term performance (i.e., auditory–visual performance testing).

The research team exposed eighteen and nineteen participants, respectively, during the daytime and nighttime to four lighting conditions: red, white, combined conditions where red and white utilized simultaneously, and a dim condition. Results showed that all lighting conditions significantly increased objective alertness, demonstrating the efficacy of light’s alerting effects irrespective of time of day. More specifically, red and combined conditions significantly increased alertness during nighttime, where the effect of the white condition was not statistically significant. The research team also found a significant improvement in participants’ hit percent (i.e., rate of correct responses) under red condition during the performance test. Results of the lighting appraisal questionnaire evaluation revealed an agreement from both nighttime and daytime participants that the combined condition was visually more comfortable and more acceptable for performing office work compared to red condition alone.


The current IDEA project demonstrated that red light in combination with white light has a potential to be an effective countermeasure to increase alertness and performance in the workplace, without compromising the visual comfort of the occupant. The research team will work with our project partner, New York City Transit, to seek opportunities to test and demonstrate a prototype lighting system in an actual control center setting. The research team will also explore working with lighting manufacturers to develop simple, cost-effective lighting solutions that can be readily implemented in a variety of railway environments.

The final report is available.

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