Rail franchise negotiations could lead to skills drain

The UK train building industry could lose vital skills if manufacturers have to cut jobs while rail franchises are renegotiated, train manufacturer Alstom warned this week. It fears train operators will not place contracts while waiting for franchises to be renewed, in a re-run of events prior to privatisation. The company already has gaps appearing […]

The UK train building industry could lose vital skills if manufacturers have to cut jobs while rail franchises are renegotiated, train manufacturer Alstom warned this week.

It fears train operators will not place contracts while waiting for franchises to be renewed, in a re-run of events prior to privatisation. The company already has gaps appearing in its orders between spring and autumn next year.

Alstom’s fears are echoed by the other large UK manufacturers, Bombardier and Adtranz, but these companies claim to have full order books for 1999.

Three rail franchises out of 25 are being renegotiated – Connex South Central, Chiltern and Great North Eastern Railway. The awarding body, the shadow Strategic Rail Authority, is not expected to make any decisions until next summer.

Meanwhile, SRA chairman Sir Alastair Morton has asked rolling stock companies, from which operators lease their trains, to spread orders over the coming months to ease any forthcoming slowdown. But there is no guarantee that the rolling stock companies will order any new trains.

Alstom’s worry is that there will be a repeat of the three-year hiatus which accompanied the privatisation of British Rail, when no new train orders were placed in the UK.

During this time train manufacturers were forced to shed workers and close plants. The resulting skills drain hampered the ability of manufacturers to meet the demands of privatised train operators when new orders started to be placed.

`If you lose your skills base you lose your efficiency,’ said Alstom marketing manager Aygun Gardiner. `When orders were eventually signed the contracts were much tighter and it took longer than expected to meet requirements.’

Alstom’s new orders gap is expected to last for between 3 and 6 months, until it starts building high-speed tilting trains for Virgin’s West Coast Main Line in September 2000.

Beyond that, the company hopes to be in the running to build between 11 and 25 high-speed tilting trains for GNER, and replacements for Connex South Central’s large Mark I train fleet, one of the largest in the UK.