Renewed investment in the UK’s rail industry is driving a demand for engineers in the sector
No trains had been made in the birthplace of locomotive manufacturing for over 30 years. But when Hitachi opened its £82m Newton Aycliffe factory in September 2015, it marked the start of a rail manufacturing renaissance not just for the north east of England, where George Stephenson set up the first company founded to build railway engines in 1823, but for the whole of Britain.
For the previous 10 years, there had been only one train builder in the UK: Bombardier in Derby. Today that company has expanded and been joined by Hitachi, assembling trains initially for the Intercity replacement programme and now for two additional British contracts. Soon to follow will be Spanish firm CAF, which is scheduled to open a new plant near Newport in South Wales in 2018. And Alstom has recently opened the country’s largest train modernisation facility in Widnes in Cheshire.
As is the case with most modern vehicle manufacturing, these factories will primarily assemble final products from components built all over the world. But the location of these sites within the UK has also contributed to the growth of British companies in the rail supply chain that is also bringing investment. In 2014, for example, Siemens expanded its factory in Hebburn, Tyneside, to build components for the new Thameslink trains. And Hitachi claims that 60 per cent of the parts for its UK-made trains come from British suppliers.
“People can call it a ‘renaissance’ or a ‘new golden era’, that sort of thing,” said Matt Watson, human resources director at Hitachi Rail Europe. “The reality is that the level of investment going into UK railways right now is huge. Something like this only happens once in 100 years.”
That investment is largely thanks to the government’s decision to start pumping money into Britain’s rail infrastructure again, after decades of neglect, rocketing passenger numbers and the 2008 global recession made doing so politically expedient. Plans worth around £10bn for unprecedented numbers of new trains to replace the country’s ageing rolling stock have followed, bolstered by the Thameslink, Crossrail and High Speed 2 programmes to
expand network capacity.
There has also been a change in the government’s rhetoric that’s placed more emphasis on how infrastructure contracts can benefit the wider UK economy, and on the importance of manufacturing. Add to that historic low interest rates and it’s not surprising that international companies have become much more interested in building trains in the UK. Around half of the more than 6,000 new carriages so far ordered are set to be made in Britain by 2021. And investment doesn’t stop there.
“If you look at planned annual investment in the rail sector from all sources up to 2033, it rarely drops below £14bn a year and peaks above £16bn,” says Neil Robertson, chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Rail.
For Hitachi, this has meant the creation of around 1,000 jobs at its Newton Aycliffe site so far, including around 100 skilled engineering roles at any one time. “We’ve set out to build and maintain rolling stock, securing contracts that involve long-term service,” said Watson.
“That means we have almost every type of role you could think of. We’ve got design engineers in the factory working on components and the integration of systems, manufacturing engineers helping to operationalise production. We also have test facility with fully live electrical operations that can diagnose faults and feed back into production.”
Beyond the train manufacturers, there is a wealth of other firms that are also benefiting from rail’s resurgence. “We have a lot of small- and medium-sized companies that are particularly good in subsystems, electronic subsystems and asset management systems,” said David Clarke, technical director for the Rail Industry Association (RIA). “The nature of global supply chain means that many international companies create centres of excellence around certain capabilities.”
Because of this global supply chain, one of the most crucial engineering roles for many companies, especially the rolling stock makers, is systems integration, which Watson also said is one of the most difficult areas to recruit in. It’s made all the more important by the fact
that the UK has a patchwork of different rail lines, systems, signals and stations, and any new product has to be integrated with them, as well as with other new technologies as the railways go digital.
The knock-on effect is that the industry needs both engineers with specialist rail experience, but also systems engineers with similar skills to those in many other manufacturing sectors. “Everyone wants digital integration with physical systems now,” said Robertson. “Never before have advanced manufacturing jobs in rail looked so like other manufacturing jobs, with such a high proportion of competencies to do with digital.”
For similar reasons, software engineers are becoming more important than ever, especially as new technologies come through, such as greater train automation, remote sensing and digital traffic management systems. “Software is really coming to the fore,” said Peter Loosely, the RIA’s policy director. “Like planes and cars, trains are now software-driven. There’s real growth in that area.”
This development is helping to challenge the rail sector’s somewhat old-fashioned image built around heavy engineering, which has contributed to its ageing workforce. The RIA estimates that around 50,000 people across the rail industry as a whole will retire within the next 10 years. The demand for engineers in the sector looks strong for the next decade and beyond.
But can the boom be sustained? If government investment comes to an end, the UK’s rebuilt rail manufacturing industry will need to ramp up its exporting capability to survive. The outcome of Brexit will play a big role in this. But, overall, the industry remains upbeat.
Loosely said: “Although there are some difficulties, possibly around strategic planning and procurement, the rail sector is an exciting place to be right now.”