By my rough reckoning, rail projects worth in excess of £100bn were outlined and discussed at NCE’s UK Rail conference last week. Speaker after speaker took to the stage to highlight opportunities from High Speed 2 to Crossrail 2, the Northern Hub to the Northern Line Extension, and the Midlands Metro to the Manchester Metrolink.
It’s a remarkable change that would have been hard to conceive five years ago. That we are where we are is testament to a recovering economy and a realisation by the government that infrastructure - and particularly transport - is an economic driver.
As rail minister Stephen Hammond told the conference, the government no longer sees the Department for Transport purely as a cost that needs to be contained; instead it sees at as a vital, economic ministry.
Indeed, the only limit to the ambition seems now to be the logistics of delivery. Because just putting all the London projects on the map at the same time is startling; try and build in the rest of the projects across the UK and it starts to look unmanageable.
And that’s just rail. Next week at NCE’s UK Roads conference a similarly upbeat sector will reveal its plans.
And then there are projects in the water sector, not least the £4.1bn Thames Tideway Tunnel. Add all that into the mix and its frightening.
No wonder major civils contractors are looking hard at their tender opportunities, scrutinising and assessing the clients they want to work with and the projects that they want to work on. That’s a new skill for the modern engineer - business acumen.
Why are contractors having to be so choosy? Because they know that there are only so many good people out there - only so many good project managers and engineers.
And that’s on both sides of the fence - just as a client is not going to be happy ending up with a B team, equally it’s no good having your best team on a project if the client’s team isn’t up to it. Either way there is a risk of conflict and a job that runs late and loses money.
And no-one wants that. Because that’s another clear reason for the booming workload - our industry’s ability to now deliver on time and on budget.
So contractors want to work for the most enlightened clients like London Underground (LU), which, as we heard last week, actually wants its Bank Station contractor Dragados - and its supply chain - to increase its profit margins on the job. Because in return, Dragados genuinely wants to continuously improve its scheme design to offer more value to LU in terms of journey time improvements for its customers. It’s a genuine win-win approach.
No wonder then that incoming High Speed 2 chief executive Simon Kirby was last week talking up his project, and trying to lure the best talent to his organisation - even if it is as at the expense of other UK clients.
And it’s why Network Rail Western and Wales regional director Robbie Burns went to great lengths to applaud the project team that has been delivering the Reading Station upgrade so successfully - he wants it to stay close at hand and eager to work on other parts of his hefty route upgrade programme.
Good people have always been hard to find; and that is truer now than ever.
The battle now is the battle for talent. And it’s a battle that is truly hotting up.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor