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Rail round table | Skills scramble

How does the rail industry address its skills needs? NCE convened a panel of experts to explore the challenge and suggest potential solutions. Mark Hansford reports.

Network Rail’s £38.5bn five year spending plan was always going to be a challenge to deliver with much of the work required - particularly in signalling and power supply - at volumes never before attempted.

But one year after the programme began, the scale of the challenge was becoming a real problem and June government stepped in.


It told Network Rail to “pause” projects to electrify the Midlands Main Line and the Trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester so that it can focus on the Great Western electrification.

It was a blow, but ultimately not completely surprising - after all, the acute shortage of skills in specialist areas such as signalling and power supply is well known.

But what is to be done? How can the industry recover lost ground, build the skills we need and ensure that the so-called greatest time of opportunity for the railways since the Victorian era remains just that - a time of great opportunity?

Two days before the news broke NCE had teamed up with Bam Nuttall to convene a panel of experts for a discussion of just that. It proved to be quite timely. So what did we learn?

The skills gaps are well known and not easy to fill

“We know we have long-term issues in signalling and supply in CP5. It’s the volume of work that we’ve tried to load in,” said Network Rail principal strategic planner Chris Rowley.

“It’s the biggest challenge and the gaps have been known for some time. These are not jobs that you can come straight out of university and do,”

There is a real challenge for the industry here; the traditional railway pattern of conditional-led renewal - there primarily because of financial constraints - drove a more manageable (but often still challenging) profile of demand for signalling works.

Network Rail principal programme sponsor, Thameslink’s Nick Gray agreed.

“Our people hole is in the mid-age range. The industry is making efforts to get the late teens and 20-somethings in. That will take time to have an impact. But apprentices in particular are coming through and staff retention and experience - particularly in procurement - is particularly important.”

It’s a challenge that surprises others further from the immediate problem.

“I’ve not experienced such acute problems in architecture. Even on large infrastructure projects, I’ve found it easy to attract great talent,” noted Hiro Aso, head of transport & infrastructure at architect Gensler.

The gaps are being exacerbated by pressure from other, better paying, sectors and regions

“The industry is not bringing sufficient people in at the bottom end and there are pressures from the highways and nuclear sectors. We are starting to see real pressure on salaries,” said Bam Nuttall rail sector director Alan Cox. “How can we retain our apprentices in the rail sector for its future benefit?”

“And globally we are quite a small fish,” noted Gray, referring to the global signalling giants Siemens and others like them. He said there are plenty of projects in the Middle East and beyond for them to focus on, and they don’t come with complex interfaces with existing, Victorian systems.

Working out the actual cost to UK plc of the skills gap would be a major step forward

“Has anybody calculated the scale of the problem in GDP terms?” asked Crossrail 2 head of commercial services Simon Adams. “Has the analysis been done to justify a government funded skills programme?”

Treasury body Infrastructure UK is currently working on a National Infrastructure Plan for Skills, which could show the way, but Adams suggested that this was something the industry should lead on.

“Infrastructure UK is in its early days and they don’t have the knowledge that people in this industry have,” he said.

In the short term changes are going to have to be made to programming of work…

“The lesson will have to be that we won’t be able to do that volume of work. There is going to have to be a smoothing of demand,” said Rowley.

“We are dealing with infrastructure that is decades old,” added Network Rail strategic planning manager Kevin Shelton, noting that upping the pace of delivery while operating within the constraints of the Victorian rail network is a challenge that should not be underestimated.

…and there is slight concern about future renewals work

“Big sexy projects often are a pull on resources, but we need to keep focus on the rest of the work bank too,” said Rowley. “So we need to maintain focus on the condition out there in 6, 7, 8 years’ time,” he said.

So we need to train signals engineers fast - but how?

Is it time to see the return of the thin sandwich course? London Underground head of station capacity programme Ralph Freeston thinks so. “With my Surrey University thin sandwich [course], I was earning my way after six months,” he recalled.

Inevitably skills will come from abroad initially

“In essence it doesn’t matter where they come from,” said Simon Addyman who is London Underground programme & project manager for Bank Station Capacity Upgrade. This is a major £600M project contracted to Spanish giant Dragados.

“Of course I would say that, but Dragados is building tunnels all over Europe,” he said.

“And Thameslink is a multi-national project in terms of delivery,” added Gray.

“We are getting a lot of CVs from the Continent,” noted Royal Haskoning DHV director Paul Hanafin, pointing out the attractiveness of the opportunities on offer in the UK.

Gensler’s Aso wondered if that could be a good thing: “Is the USP for the British market its multi-nationality?” he asked.

But some much-sought after skills are not easy to import

“Crossrail - like many major projects - is using the NEC; and it is a very different mindset needed to get NEC contracts working.

There is a big hole behind in commercial and it is not a hole that you can easily fill from Europe,” said Adams.

“We need UK experience; experience on the approach to NEC.”

“You have got to get UK-specific skills, such as project management,” agreed Addyman.

“It’s a mix. The commercial resource shortage is very distinct at the moment. And people need time in the sector and the specific organisation to be most effective.”

“You have got to get UK and sector-specific skills, such as project management,” said Addyman.

The commercial resource shortage is very distinct at the moment.”

So how - ultimately - do we make the industry more attractive to home-grown engineers?

“I don’t see clarity - particularly on the construction side - of what is on offer. When do young people see the opportunities? The National Infrastructure Plan is getting more and more detailed.

“But how do we make the opportunities sexy?” asked Hanafin.

“Is the question how do we make the ordinary sexy?” asked Cox. “It is fairly typical that engineers aren’t best at promoting how amazing our work is,” noted Shelton.

“But there is a groundswell of interest around sexy projects,” observed Adams.

And it’s not rocket science: “You just need to be more out there about the excitement. It’s not difficult,” said Aso.

“Perhaps architects are naturally more inclined to be talkative about their job than engineers.”

Attracting non-engineers isn’t easy either

“Would clients allow people to work on their civils projects with non-civil engineering degrees?” asked Cox.

It is a challenge: European procurement legislation makes it difficult for clients to allow non-specific degree holders to be proposed in tenderers teams as the rules place a duty of care on them to see that competent people are appointed.

At least the clients themselves can be more flexible.

“We don’t stipulate a need for engineering or construction degrees for entry onto our project management graduate training scheme,” noted Addyman.

The digital railway is a problem for another day

Early studies suggest that as much as 60% extra capacity could be released by having a digitised signalling network. Network Rail has spoken of its vision for this to be achieved by 2027. But that was before the current struggles were revealed.

Network Rail’s short term concern and focus now is that skills and resources are in place - at least for now - in the South East to maintain, renew or upgrade where necessary conventional signalling equipment - as that happens to be what the signalling infrastructure is made up of right here, right now.

“I’m not so much worried about the digital railway,” said Rowley, referencing the fact that resources for this work were less of an immediate worry - he isn’t after all currently wrestling with a large ETCS based network in the South East.

“I’m worried that maintenance of the network in the South East is built in,” he said.

Network Rail has a large network of conventional kit and for Rowley the focus is on having a robust plan for managing that as well as having a medium term digital railway plan.

  • Simon Adams, head of commercial services, Crossrail 2
  • Simon Addyman, programme and project manager - Bank Station Capacity Upgrade, London Underground
  • Hiro Aso, head of transport and infrastructure, Gensler
  • Alan Cox, rail sector director, Bam Nuttall
  • Ralph Freeston, head of station capacity programme, London Underground
  • Nick Gray, principal programme sponsor, Thameslink Network Rail
  • Paul Hanafin, director, Royal Haskoning DHV
  • Mark Hansford, editor, NCE
  • Chris Rowley, principal strategic planner, Network Rail
  • Kevin Shelton, strategic planning manager, Network Rail

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Bam Nuttal logo 2015

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