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As the UK's rail, Underground and light rail infrastructure continues to expand, signalling skills are in desperately short supply. Now contracting consortium Tube Lines is spending £7.5M to build and developing a specialist technical training centre at its Stratford Market depot.

Although the centre will be used for a wide range of training, its first priority is to enable the consortium to train 25 signalling engineers each year to help bridge the national skills shortage in this field.

Tube Lines is one of the two consortia that took over responsibility for maintaining and upgrading the Tube at the start of 2003. It is responsible for infrastructure on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines.

The other consortium, Metronet, is responsible for providing training for signalling engineers across the entire network. However, says director of external affairs, George Hutchinson, Tube Lines is keen that its engineers receive training specific to the lines they work on.

'The training they get at the moment is generic for working on the Underground, ' he explains. 'We would like them to be trained for each line.'

The consortium - made up of Amey, Bechtel and Jarvis - will replace all the signals on its three lines between now and 2014, and the necessary experts to design and install the systems are a scarce resource.

When Tube Lines took over, it had 600 people across the organisation on temporary or agency contracts. The majority have been converted into permanent positions, but this has been proved to be difficult on the signalling side.

Its human resources director Andy Good says: 'The rail industry suffers from a shortfall in trained signalling maintenance staff. Their specialist skills and knowledge are much sought after.'

The company is to augment its 85-strong trained signalling team to cope with the resignalling work, as well as ensure there is a steady stream of qualified engineers to replace those that retire, or to cope with an increase in workload.

After training, the engineers will become technical officers with the necessary background to work towards the most senior engineering positions in the country. 'Bringing in permanent teams of technical officers will help secure long term stability for our business and for the rail Industry, ' says Good.

The course has been accredited by the Institution of Rail Signalling Engineers, making it a recognised technical qualification throughout the industry. But Tube Lines hopes staff will choose to stay put once they have completed the training. 'We have to have the right incentive regime to make sure they stay with us, ' says Hutchinson. 'You do get loyalty by investing in people.'

Tube Lines has awarded a £1.8M contract to Catalis Rail to deliver the signalling training for the next 10 years, including providing the specialist trainers and course material.

Tube Lines technical manager, Roger Haines, says:

'The training centre will develop scores of Tube Lines staff in a specialism that can be applied directly where they can be of most benefit - on the Underground. A centre of excellence of this nature is something this industry has been lacking for years.'

The consortium is about to launch a recruitment campaign to attract people with skills adaptable to signalling systems, and is part way through an extensive internal training programme to convert existing employees to fully qualified status in signals.

In addition to signalling training, the Stratford training centre will also be used for a wide range of training for Tube Lines staff in all business areas, including health and safety and management skills.

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