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Britain’s Rail Future is On The Line

13th March 2014

In light of the recent developments in the electrification sector with Network Rail agreeing £2 billion worth of framework contracts with Balfour Beatty, AmeyInabensa, CarillionPowerlines and ABC Electrification, it is reasonable to argue that the UK is beginning to establish a railway system that is faster, cleaner and much more

These six framework contracts are just a part of around 30 different electrification projects that the government has green-lighted for the next seven years. These framework agreements seek to electrify 2,000 miles of track between 2014 and 2019, a significant investment that will create a more sustainable railway.

However, we estimate that by 2016, the electrification sector will require upwards of 2,000 skilled linesmen to carry out the works, more than 10 times the current capacity. The UK now faces an uphill struggle to recruit and train over 1,800 electrification linesmen before 2016. One of the biggest concerns that we are experiencing with regards to establishing a skilled workforce in the UK rail industry is the relatively lengthy breaks between large-scale projects. These breaks inevitably lead to a reduction in demand for specialist skilled workers, most notably within Electrification and Signalling.

Unfortunately as a result, we commonly see capacity problems arise when large-scale projects are initiated and the industry’s demand begins to far outweigh the supply. In disciplines such as Signalling and Electrification, there isn’t a direct transferability of skills that enables technicians to easily transfer between roles. Those looking to make the switch to the electrification sector are still required to complete specialist training in order to be qualified enough to work.

We are also dealing with an ageing workforce with many high-level qualified technicians expected to retire over the next few years, further threatening the sustainability of future electrification works.

One solution to the skills shortage is to source skilled linesmen from other countries such as Poland, Slovakia and The Philippines. Many European countries have a much higher ratio of electrified track to the UK and have thus created a highly skilled workforce that will soon be in big demand.

However, sourcing technicians from foreign countries doesn’t necessarily address the long-term issues that the UK rail industry has in terms of maintaining a highly skilled workforce. With youth unemployment in the UK reaching close to 20%, could there be a better solution right on our doorstep?

We should be looking at supporting organisations that aim to fill the various skills gaps that exist within the industry, most notably the partnership between Carillion and SPL Powerlines. The partnership was set up ahead of the Network Rail framework contracts agreement and aims to significantly reduce the deficit in skilled linesmen over the next 6 years by investing heavily in purpose-built electrification training centres.

Another organisation that deserves recognition is the UK Rail Industry Training Trust, a charity set up to reach out to 12-19 year-olds across the UK to promote careers in the rail industry. The trust is currently running a series of engagement and educational events around the country, promoting the types of careers available within the rail industry.

Vocational education
There also needs to be a shift in attitudes towards careers in the trades as it recently emerged that youngsters are being actively dissuaded away from vocational education in favour of more academic pursuits. According to a recent study by the Edge Foundation, 36% of students who studied a vocational qualification were advised against it by their school. Only 51% of parents encouraged their child’s choice to study a vocational qualification, compared to 74% of parents who were happy to encourage an academic pursuit. This poses another dilemma for the rail and construction industries despite evidence showing that the total income of an ex-apprentice is not too dissimilar to that of a university graduate.

As the UK commits to constructing a 21st century fast, safe and green railway, we must not ignore the continual demand for qualified and experienced technicians and engineers. It is essential that we are continually inspiring the next generation of railway engineers as these future stars will be the ones building the large-scale projects such as HS2 and Crossrail 2.

For more information on how advance Training & Recruitment Services can meet your electrification staffing needs, talk to our resident Electrification & Power expert Daniel Forth-Rumley by calling 01483 361061