Business is booming in the UK rail sector, but technical skills are no longer enough, as Margo Cole reports.
The announcement by Network Rail earlier this month that it plans to spend £37.5bn between 2014 and 2019 - more than £26bn of that on improving and maintaining the network - is just what the UK consultancy sector wants to hear, according to Hyder rail director Mac Alghita. “It is a good time for the rail sector,” he says.
Network Rail’s plans have yet to be approved by the Office of Rail Regulation, but Alghita says there are good signs that the government and the regulator broadly approve of the plans, and funding is in place for much of the proposed investment. As a result, the next few years should see the development of major electrification schemes across the network, as well as upgrades to key structures and the completion of major projects like Crossrail and Thameslink.
“They are spending this money because there’s growth in passenger and freight demand, and because a lot of the infrastructure is old, Victorian infrastructure,” explains Alghita.
In addition to the major projects, Network Rail’s plans include schemes that will allow more carriages to be added to trains, which means extending the length of platforms at hundreds of stations. Although each individual scheme may seem small, making platforms longer may involve complex civil works, as well as reconfiguring and redesigning the associated rail systems such as track, signalling and overhead line electrification infrastructure.
“Capacity enhancement schemes require multidisciplinary design and construction capability,” says Alghita. “The design must take account of track access constraints and the need to keep the stationsoperational.”
Hyder was recently involved in upgrading the North London Line to cope with longer trains so that capacity could be increased ahead of the Olympics. The consultant is currently looking at a further upgrade now that the line has become part of the London Overground circular route around the capital. “Don’t underestimate how difficult that can be,” says Alghita. “It affects every bit of the railway infrastructure - bridges, tunnels, track, signalling. These are not easy projects.”
The boom in UK rail opportunities is not fuelled by Network Rail’s plans alone: the nation’s second high speed line is getting ever closer to being a reality, as a hybrid parliamentary Bill is being prepared for the first phase of High Speed 2 (HS2), and work on route options for the second phase has started.
“I think consultants can play a big role in helping achieve efficiencies, because the effect of their designs is enormous”
Mac Alghita, Hyder
At the same time, London Underground has ambitious major projects on its books, including the £500M redevelopment of Bank station and the extension of the Northern line to Battersea.
“This is all exciting news for us,” says Alghita, whose company has already landed contracts for work on many of these key schemes, as well as two Crossrail packages, the massive redevelopment of London Bridge station (in joint venture with WSP), capacity enhancements in south east England and Bank station. The company is also on a framework for HS2.
So for Hyder, at least, the UK rail industry is booming, and the consultant plans to recruit accordingly. It currently has 48 vacancies in its UK rail teams, and more specialists will be needed as Network Rail’s plans start coming to fruition.
But the skills required are varied. On Crossrail for example, the consultant worked with the client on public consultations, so traditional design expertise must sit alongside other abilities. “It does require engineering skills, but combined with strong stakeholder management skills and softer skills,” explains Alghita.
“On other projects, for example - the electrification schemes planned for the Great Western Route and the West Coast Main Line - there is a shortage of some of the core rail disciplines in the UK - like electrification and signalling. The industry needs innovative ways of, for example, turning electrical engineering graduates into signalling engineers,” he adds.
Hyder already has a scheme to do this, but Alghita warns: “The whole industry needs to do so, otherwise in 10 or 20 years’ time we will run out of accredited signalling engineers.
“If you look at other European countries, like Spain, Germany and France, they have all constructed high speed railway lines in recent years, so these countries have skills that are more relevant,” he adds. “When you look at electrification and combine it with high speed, there are not many projects that have been done in the UK.”
Hyder is looking at the possibility of strategic partnerships with companies based in mainland Europe to develop the relevant skills for the workload coming up in the UK, as well as using its global design centres in India, where signalling and electrification capabilities are being developed to support the UK’s needs.
Even traditional civil and structural engineering skills are in short supply in the rail sector, where engineers have to think differently to those in highways design.
“Some of the rail projects are the most exciting because they interface with so many stakeholders and can be really challenging”
Graham Reid, Hyder
“These engineers need to know how to design solutions that are buildable within the rail environment,” says Alghita.
“When you construct civils infrastructure in the highways environment you have time - but you haven’t got that luxury in the rail environment, where everything has to be done within short possessions.
“Even the nature of loading is different: highways are designed to ultimate limit state design, whereas you use fatigue in the rail sector - and that gives a completely different focus in the design,” he adds.
Hyder is encouraging crosssector work among its designers, so they can swap between disciplines and gain expertise in the different sectors. But the senior members that lead the rail teams need to have a background in that environment.
“We are actively recruiting in most of our sectors at the moment, so we end up having quite a lot of movement of resources between sectors and disciplines,” explains the company’s UK managing director Graham Reid.
Not all rail sector projects require specific rail expertise, however. London Underground projects may require non safetycritical specialists for pedestrian flow modelling, environmental services or heritage expertise, for example.
“I think some of the rail projects are the most exciting, because they interface with so many stakeholders and can be really complex and challenging to work on,” says Reid.
They also - increasingly - require an element of lateral thinking, as clients look to make efficiency savings in all the work they commission. In its Strategic Business Plan for the forthcoming control period, CP5, Network Rail committed to 18% efficiency savings - on top of 20% plus savings over the last two control periods.
“I think consultants can play a big role in helping achieve efficiencies, because the effect of their designs is enormous,” says Alghita. “Your scheme is going to be built, and if it is not the right design it is going to cost a lot to build and it might be inefficient.
“The industry is moving towards collaborative working and alliancing,” he continues.
“That’s the right way to go - through one team with the right people from the contractor’s organisation, the consultant’s organisation and the client’s organisation. It makes the solution right first time and more cost effective.
“Consultants have to add value through innovation - like designing modular solutions that can be repeated - and with whole life costing in mind,” he adds.
The key clients in this sector are increasingly looking for consultants and contractors that are comfortable working in these collaborative environments, and being engaged early in the design and development process in order to get the best solution - with appropriate incentives to save the client money.
“Provided there’s a reasonable incentive it works well, but it shouldn’t be easy and it shouldn’t be soft,” says Reid.
So, while there may be a boom in the UK rail sector, it is far from a licence to print money for the major consultants, and Hyder for one needs its new recruits to combine technical expertise with a range of other skills that will help the firm meet the changing needs of this market.