Railtrack’s use of engineering contractors has come under fresh fire this week, as the rail industry crisis deepens.
The rail infrastructure firm has been urged to reduce its dependence on private contractors and bring more of its engineering work back in-house, while administrators are thought to be reviewing the cost of outsourcing so much of its project work.
Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, chair of the Commons transport select committee said the sooner Railtrack decides to bring its engineering work back in-house the better. ‘The supervision of contractors is extremely poor and dangerous. The more engineers there are within Railtrack the better – providing they know what they are doing.’
Railtrack’s poor performance has often been blamed on a lack of engineers in managerial positions. During privatisation in 1996 the company outsourced much of its engineering work to contractors, and many of its engineers went to work for these firms.
Railtrack administrator Ernst & Young is believed to be looking closely at its use of engineering contractors, in an effort to cut costs. This would inevitably mean bringing more engineering work back within Railtrack.
But chairman of contractor WS Atkins, Michael Jeffries, dismissed suggestions that taking more engineering work back into Railtrack itself would be a more cost-effective solution. The supply of engineers with the right experience in the UK is limited, and most went across to the private sector during privatisation, he said. ‘If Railtrack wants to get these people back, it will have to attract them with higher salaries and better conditions. I fail to see how that would be much cheaper [than using contractors].’
The core business of Railtrack is maintaining infrastructure, but the expense is not uniform over long periods of time, so it is often more efficient to buyservices in when they are needed, said Jeffries.
In the meantime, the uncertainty surrounding the future of Railtrack could lead rail contractors to switch their engineering staff to other jobs, threatening the work being undertaken to upgrade the network.
‘If the flow of project work was to diminish, a lot of contractors would have to redeploy their engineers. We must get a resolution to the Railtrack situation soon, or the engineering expertise we have in the UK will dissipate,’ said Jeffries.
The rail industry has suffered increasingly from engineering problems since the Hatfield disaster in October 2000 revealed the extent of problems on the network. A recent leaked report from consultant Ove Arup said worn-out carriage wheels running over poorly-laid track could bring about another accident, while John Curley, head of Railtrack’s Great Western zone, warned last week that the rail sector was ‘half a dozen engineering resignations from shutting down the network’.