Skills gap will foil SRA rail plan

A senior figure at Railtrack has admitted that the UK’s rail industry does not have sufficient engineers to carry out the government’s plan to improve the network.

The UK’s rail industry does not have sufficient engineers to carry out the government’s plan to improve the network, a senior figure at Railtrack has admitted.

The Strategic Rail Authority this week launched a 10-year plan for upgrading the railways, including the promise of improvements to track and signaling at 100 locations throughout the UK. Much of this work involves short-term infrastructure improvements to be completed by 2005, supposedly offering a quick boost to UK commuters. But these projects could be threatened by the industry’s lack of engineers.

David Carrier, head of engineering education at Railtrack, said the company has a shortage of 250 track, signalling, telecommunications and electrification engineers, while the industry as a whole needs another 1,500 professionals. It will take the sector two years to turn the situation around, he said.

‘Today there are not enough engineers [to carry out the government’s plans]. The situation will be different in two years, but clearly the shortage of people is the biggest problem to solve if we are to achieve the deadlines.’

Skills shortages in the south of England, where much of the planned improvements are to be focused, will soon be compounded by major engineering work to upgrade the London Underground network, and the building of Heathrow’s Terminal Five.

When Railtrack was formed, the company did not recognise the importance of its engineering role and many professionals left to join contractors, Carrier said. Since then the industry has failed to recruit as actively as it should have done.

Recruitment drive

To turn things around, the company has launched a scheme to allow engineers from other sectors of industry to convert their skills to those needed by the railways. The first of these recruits will begin their six-month conversion course in track engineering next Monday, with more due to start over the next few months. Schemes to cover the areas of signals and electrification engineering are also now planned.

Railtrack is also about to start an overseas recruitment drive, hoping to find around 20 experienced rail engineers from countries such as India and Australia.

As part of its strategic plan, the SRA announced the launch of a National Rail Academy to promote training in specialised skills. And a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said it would be holding an event to look at the problem of skills shortages in the rail industry in mid February.

The shortages are particularly severe among signalling engineers. An interim report by the Rail Industry Training Council found 700 out of a possible 1,100 engineering posts were left vacant in the signals and telecommunications sector.

Ken Burrage, chief executive of the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers, said companies are reluctant to spend large sums on training and recruitment as they lack confidence in long-term government investment in the sector.