Minding the skills gap: careers in rail

The warning ‘mind the gap’ is given every day on Britain’s railways. It is too great an irony to resist that the largest gap is not, in fact, between the train and the bend on platform two at London Victoria Station, but that one existing between the skills required to bring our rail transport systems into the 21st century and those currently at the industry’s disposal.

Each day the gap in question gets a little wider. A high rate of retirement from the workforce, in what is perceived as a comparatively low-tech sphere, has not been balanced with a replenishment of younger engineering stock; engineers with skills and knowledge are now needed to enable the industry to embrace its hi-tech future. This is one based squarely on the application of new technology, such as in-cab signalling and fly-by-wire control systems; it also involves a continued investment in line electrification, the proposed extension of the high-speed network and the challenge of reducing energy consumption and carbon footprint.


There are none more mindful of the gap than Steve White, services director at Siemens, who is responsible for maintaining and supporting the Siemens rolling stock, which includes some of the most technologically advanced trains on the UK network. ‘There are 13,500 people in the UK who earn their living by looking after rolling stock. The industry estimates there will be a gap of 4,500 in the next five years.’

While the high rate of retirement was causing problems, the gap was also being driven by growth in investment in rolling stock and new technology. ‘There is a skills gap coming with the introduction of fly-by-wire technology and the European Rail Traffic Management System [ERTMS],’ he said.

In 2010, the first of a new fleet of 38 Siemens trains, the Class 380, went into operation as part of a £450m project to improve services in the west of Scotland. The project also involved the expansion of ScotRail’s Shields depot in Glasgow, creating 130 new jobs.

Weight-saving features make the fleet efficient to operate, and the Class 380 also monitors its own energy use and has regenerative braking that can return energy to the power system. Such advances, said White, including the fly-by-wire controls, which means the train ‘runs off an ethernet backbone’, makes conventional maintenance skills and experience of dealing with manual systems less relevant.

‘We still need good technicians, diligent people who can undertake the routine maintenance work, but then also hi-tech engineers who are capable of things such as advanced fault finding and diagnostics. So within that group are systems engineers and production support engineers.’

Around the next bend in the line are yet more changes, which will affect many aspects of the rail industry. This is the planned introduction of ERTMS in the UK. ERTMS is a suite of systems designed to replace traditional line-side signals with in-cab signalling, improve operating safety and eventually enable a radio-based train-control system capable of managing the movements of all trains on the network.

One of ScotRail’s new Siemens class 380 trains

Trials of parts of the system have already been carried out in the UK and the first roll-out is due to begin on the Great Western main line from Paddington to Bristol in 2016.
Such an ambitious system will, however, require a workforce of appropriately skilled engineers. To address this and other challenges, the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE), in collaboration with Siemens, announced last month the launch of a rail training academy, specialising in traction and rolling-stock skills. The academy will be sited at the Siemens service headquarters in Northampton and open its doors to the first students in Spring 2015. It will offer 20,000 man days of training per year.

Elaine Clark, head of training and skills at the NSARE, said the academy would play a critical role in meeting future needs by bringing resources from across the industry to bear on the task of building a new, highly skilled workforce of railway engineers. ‘It will operate as the “hub” in a hub-and-spoke model linking other manufacturers facilities, colleges, and other training and education institutions,’ she said.

According to research carried out by the NSARE last year, a total of 10,000 new recruits will be needed in the next five years. Clark said there was an immediate need for skills across the board, but specifically overhead line design and construction as more of the network was electrified, as well as signal engineering skills. ‘One of the key issues is employers are looking for people with experience and this is proving very difficult.’

However, the introduction of ERTMS, will demand completely new skills, she said. ‘This will require a lot of training, and a lot more “systems” engineers than we have at present. This is a long-term, 30-year project.’

Clark added that higher skill levels would also be necessary to take advantage of techniques pioneered in other sectors such as remote condition monitoring, and ‘reliability-centred maintenance’, a method developed in the aviation industry to establish safe minimum levels of maintenance. ‘It’s probably fair to say the railway is just catching up with some of the techniques that other capital-intensive industries such as aero and energy have been deploying for some time. There is a growing trend to see the railway as a whole system rather than individual “bits”.’

Clark’s view was echoed by Russell Otter, director of Morson International, a recruitment agency that specialises in supplying the rail sector. He said that out on the track the skills shortage
was already ‘extreme’. This was most notable in areas such as overhead line electrification, signalling, permanent way (or track) and power systems. As such, many employers looked to hire the ‘finished article’ for immediate impact on their projects, rather than invest in training the next generation.

‘We are noticing an increased need for multi-skilled labour, clients merging roles that were previously separate, essentially a role defined by a quantity of competencies rather than a title, which obviously reduces labour requirements and costs, but significantly increases training and certification requirements.’

He said his clients were also becoming more open to candidates with skills from ‘multi-disciplinary engineering environments such as automotive, aerospace, marine or construction’.

However, Otter said it was good to see that some companies were reinvesting in training and apprenticeships, but added: ‘There is a gap to fill in the time taken to develop an individual from a
raw recruit to the finished article or a qualified engineer.’