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Run down signalling industry threatens further rail chaos

OBSOLETE SIGNALLING equipment could bring more disaster to Britain's railway network, NCE has learned.

Contractors, responsible for signalling as part of their maintenance contracts, say there is no longer capacity within the signalling industry to cope with the volume of work to be done. The lack of a long term strategy means suppliers are unwilling to take on and train the staff required.

Poor investment over the past decade has led to a lack of depth in the signalling industry. Hundreds of signalling engineers were made redundant in 1999 when work fell off and few have been recruited since, it is claimed.

Institution of Railway Signal Engineers chief executive Ken Burrage explained that once all the high profile contracts like Proof House, Euston and Willesden are complete by early next year many suppliers have no more work on.

He said: 'There is a massive amount of work to be done across the network and suppliers have empty order books - it's ludicrous.' A signalling company director added: 'What is needed is for Railtrack to set out a long term plan over five to 10 years so suppliers will have the confidence to invest in training.'

Railtrack said current plans had been agreed with the Regulator to 'allow for growth that was sustainable'. The spokesperson then confirmed that Railtrack was developing a 10-25 year plan which, once finished, will be shared with its contractors. It expects it to be ready next year.

A spokesperson said that it had encouraged suppliers to train more signalling engineers but rising employment costs had put them off and caused signalling contracts to soar in cost:

'They are allowing engineers' salaries to spiral and are simply passing the costs on to Railtrack, which then sees contract values soar.'

Contractors told NCE how now obsolete equipment had become impossible to maintain.

One told of equipment that was too delicate to be touched and simply had to be left and protected.

Reports of control panel doors that cannot be shut for fear of damage and wire degradation following the ingress of water due to damaged rubber sheathing or rodent attack are common. Replacement parts for outdated equipment are also becoming harder to locate, contractors warned.

Further problems are encountered as new standards make like for like equipment replacement impossible. But at the same time the lengthy approvals system is delaying the introduction of more modern technology.

As traffic volumes increase, pressure will mount on the ageing equipment, said industry sources.

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