THE BOOM in the rail industry could be brought to an abrupt halt if skill shortages are not tackled immediately, top industry figures warned this week.
Years of under-investment, they said, have forced skills away from the industry leaving major schemes such as the modernisation of the West Coast and East Coast main lines without the staff to do the work.
Railtrack general manager in charge of the West Coast Route Modernisation Tony Fletcher explained: 'In the early to mid 1990's the lack of work led to experienced staff leaving, many taking early retirement. Now we are experiencing shortages of management skills and overhead line, track design and signalling engineers.'
Balfour Beatty managing director of major projects Rob Boulger underlined the problem.
'Until recently there was a low level of rail construction in the UK. Electrification work was running at about £10M per year.
Now its £100M a year. You just can't expand the skill base so quickly.'
Fletcher and Balfour Beatty have already brought in German overhead line engineers for the remodelling works at London's Euston station and Proof House junction in the Midlands. There are also plans to use staff from Balfour Beatty's Boston to Washington electrification works in the USA.
Similarly, Railtrack is to use South African track engineers in the north west. Railtrack corporate affairs manager David Wiggins explained: 'We tried our level best to recruit from the UK but the skill base isn't there so we had to cast our net further and wider.'
But employing engineers from abroad is only a short term measure. Fletcher said that on the West Coast Main Line accurate forward planning was essential to foresee where staff would be required. 'We must ensure we get work done quickly and make full use of our possessions, ' he said Railtrack director of major projects Simon Murray, speaking in Birmingham last week, said the problem was 'very concerning'. He said the industry should reduce 'man marking' and 'make use and train what it has got'. Like Fletcher he is a firm believer in direct labour.
But contractors will only take on staff if they know there is a supply of work. Fletcher said he wanted to double contractors' direct labour to 40% and is working to increase confidence that this work will be there.