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Viewpoint: Finding the best

Times are tough but we need engineers, says Network Rail’s infrastructure investment director Simon Kirby

It’s a pleasure to be invited to write a regular piece for NCE. I intend to cover a range of issues affecting engineers working in the rail industry through these challenging times as we deliver on our commitments to build a bigger and better railway. Providing a modern, reliable and efficient rail network is essential to Britain’s prosperity.

Over the next four and a half years Network Rail will be continuing the biggest programme of investment in our railways since the time of Brunel. Across the country, major improvement schemes will unlock the full potential of our network, increasing capacity to relieve overcrowding, and reduce journey times.

“Rail gets people moving, and can help get the economy moving too.”

Rail gets people moving, and can help get the economy moving too as improved journeys and connections with markets generate more business opportunities. Continuing investment through the recession is therefore vital.

The rail industry, with its long-term horizons and reliance on engineering expertise in civils, M&E, track, signalling and telecommunications, has a big part to play in retaining and fostering a skilled workforce and new technology. These are vital areas on which to build a modern and vibrant economy.

Just as infrastructure investment requires a long-term view, so it is with investing in people. Rail projects present a number of complex challenges to engineers, not least working without disrupting the railway which means our projects require a high degree of planning and innovation. Passengers expect a rail service seven days a week, and our challenge is to maintain and improve the railway while keeping services running.

To achieve this we need to draw upon a large pool of skilled engineers with a wide range of skills and experience.

“Recent research showed that only 8% of this year’s university intake chose to study an engineering related degree.”

In general we are successful in recruitment but as an industry there are key shortages resulting from a lack of investment in developing talent through the late 1980s and 1990s. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again despite these difficult economic times.

But there is a worrying gap developing as we struggle to recruit new entrants into the engineering profession. Recent research showed that only 8% of this year’s university intake chose to study an engineering related degree. We need to shout louder about the exciting careers available, and the opportunities to work on major projects such as our Thameslink upgrade in London.

When we took over from Railtrack one of our priorities was to create a first class in-house training programme to cultivate engineering excellence and help us develop the skills we needed. From our award winning apprenticeship scheme in Gosport, our foundation degree with Sheffield Hallam through to our masters programme in conjunction with the University of Warwick and University College London, we are developing the skills our industry needs at a variety of levels to build a bigger and better railway.

Cutting back on training and recruitment may look like an easy way to cut costs during the lean times, but often decisions taken to meet short-term interests usually come back to haunt us to our cost later on. We are already paying the price from the recruitment freeze on young engineers in the last recession.

We cannot afford to lose another generation.

  • Simon Kirby is Network Rail’s infrastructure investment director

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