On track for innovation

With both major political parties turning their attention to environmental issues, improving public transport — and the rail network in particular — is now firmly on the political agenda.The UK rail system is the oldest in the world, consisting of 10,000 miles of standard gauge track, of which around a third is electrified.Over the past […]

With both major political parties turning their attention to environmental issues, improving public transport — and the rail network in particular — is now firmly on the political agenda.

The UK rail system is the oldest in the world, consisting of 10,000 miles of standard gauge track, of which around a third is electrified.

Over the past few decades the network has suffered from under-investment and a spate of accidents which has thrown it into chaos. But with a more environmentally-aware public eager to avoid road congestion, passenger numbers have been increasing year-on-year as we return to the trains.

To meet this growing demand, in 2001 the government instigated a 10-year Transport Plan with £60bn earmarked for the rail industry. Six years on, the network has seen wide-scale replacement of old rolling stock such as slam-door trains and is undertaking a number of large projects including the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) the first new railway in England for more than 60 years, and upgrading of the West Coast Main Line.

Meanwhile, new light rail lines have opened, such as the Eccles extension to the Manchester Metrolink and the Nottingham Express Transit. All of this has given a huge boost to the number of engineers that the rail industry requires.

‘Now that most new rolling stock is in place, the challenge for train operators is on maintenance and improving reliability,’ said Anson Jack, director of standards for the Rail Safety and Standards Board. The RSSB was created in 2003 and provides knowledge, analysis, a substantial level of technical resource, information and risk management tools to rail operators.

‘Network Rail has a huge renewal and maintenance programme which has increased its demand for engineers,’ said Jack. ‘Together with other parts of the industry, the company has an imperative to cut costs, increase capacity, and improve performance while maintaining the improvement in already high safety levels.’

One company that is heavily involved across both rolling stock maintenance and infrastructure renewal is Siemens. According to Steve Lewitt, human resources director for Siemens Transportation in the UK, the company has two main roles in the UK’s rail industry which require ongoing recruitment of skilled engineers.

First, the company is contracted to maintain the rolling stock it has sold to companies such as SouthWest Trains.

‘Most job opportunities are in areas such as fault-finding and modification, as well as commissioning and installing new trains, as is the case with our latest contract with the Trans-Pennine express,’ said Lewitt. ‘We have to make sure that the trains work on the rails and with signalling, and that the real-time train information systems operate effectively.’

The company’s other concern relates to infrastructure, and includes a new signalling project for Network Rail in Portsmouth, as well as electrification work on the West Coast Main Line. Other related work includes telecommunications provision, such as improving mobile telecoms within the driver’s cab.

‘The communications work involves software, so people we look to recruit must have IT as well as engineering skills,’ said Lewitt.

Pressure on existing services from increasing commuter numbers means London is seeing considerable investment. The current multi-billion pound overhaul of the capital’s Underground will see 80 per cent of the track replaced in coming years, while system capacity will be increased by 12 per cent by 2012.

In a Public Private Partnership with London Underground, Metronet is upgrading nine of the Tube’s 12 lines, and is investing £17bn in the project. ‘Over £3m is being invested every day,’ said Stephen Hall, vice-president of human resources at Metronet Rail. ‘It is the world’s largest metro regeneration project.’ 

As part of the company’s drive to introduce a new maintenance regime based on global best-practice, Metronet is mid-way through recruiting an additional 550 front-line staff. Half will be employed for track maintenance, while the remainder will be equally split between signalling, and train and station maintenance.

According to Hall, signalling engineers are in particular demand. Also needed are senior project managers that are used to successfully managing million-pound budgets and ensuring the highest degree of safety. 

‘All 150 stations within our two-thirds share of the network are being upgraded,’ said Hall. ‘So far we have completed 31. The longevity of the project offers engineers great opportunities but the nature of the work also presents huge challenges. For instance, we are making good progress with our flagship station, Oxford Circus. This is a major hub with 64 million passengers travelling through it each year. So virtually the entire £55m modernisation programme has to be carried out at night when it is closed to avoid disruption.’

Elsewhere in the capital, a joint venture between Carillion and Balfour Beatty has recently been named preferred bidder for Transport for London’s £363m deal to build the East London rail extension between Dalston Junction and West Croydon, which should help to reduce commuter overcrowding.

‘If we win the tender on this, which looks likely as an internal supplier, then we will be looking for people with rail and construction skills across the board,’ said Mike McCann, area manager for London and the south-east at Sky Blue Rail, a division of Carillon which provides staff to the rail sector.

Although the company’s work on the Channel Tunnel link into London is in its final stages, work on the East London line is due to begin in March. ‘Civil engineers will be needed at first, but in January 2008 the building of the railway lines will start. We will need three or four bridges, which means we will need bridge and construction engineers.’

Meanwhile, a decision is pending on the £10bn Crossrail project.

‘Crossrail will need a huge amount of talent. We believe this will get the go-ahead later this year,’ said McCann. ‘It will provide work for 25 years. We are hopeful as existing rail lines are already finding it hard to cope with demand from freight and passengers.’

However, with so much work coming online across the country, there are concerns there will not be enough engineers to go round, meaning applicants will be able to pick and choose from the host of positions available.

‘With all the work in London, then the Olympics construction work coming up, I don’t think there will be enough engineers in the UK,’ said McCann. ‘A couple of years ago we filled shortages by recruiting engineers from South Africa and Nigeria and we will have to do this again unless more are trained here.’

While companies such as Siemens are keen to offer benefits such as certified training to keep skilled personnel within the company, such pressure is also having an effect on salaries. ‘It is particularly easy to move to the rail sector from construction. The pay in the rail sector has increased year-on-year for the past 12 years,’ said McCann. ‘At the high end, engineers earn an absolute fortune and will continue to do so.’

Given the scale of investment, upward pressure on pay and the variety and length of current projects, any engineer looking to enter or move within the sector should be spoilt for choice.