Timetable for change

With all parts of the rail industry, both at home and abroad, requiring a wide range of engineering specialists, it’s an exciting time for career prospects. Julia Pierce reports.

The UK’s rail network carries 25,000 trains every day, transporting three million passengers and over 400,000 tonnes of freight.

Demands on services are increasing rapidly, and during the past 10 years there has been a40 per cent rise in the number of passenger miles travelled. The same period has also seen a 60 per cent increase in freight traffic.

All this means that maintenance of existing infrastructure as well as refurbishment and replacement of ageing sections is vital to the smooth running of the nation’s businesses, creating a high demand for skilled engineering staff on a variety of projects. More than 70 per cent of all rail journeys start or finish in London, with 500,000 commuter journeys each day. It is therefore not surprising that that this area of the country is currently the focus of much investment.

‘Every part of the rail industry needs people at the moment,’ said Tom Nixon, operations manager at staffing solutions specialist EPC Global. ‘In London, three of the world’s largest rail projects are being undertaken at the same time — Crossrail, work on Thameslink, and the upgrade of London’s Underground. Rail can be looked on as an old industry, but the technologies in use are very cutting edge,’ he added.

Nixon said that positions exist in signalling, telecoms and systems and electrification in particular. Meanwhile, pressure to upgrade and expand stations and services in time for the 2012 London Olympics means that certain skills are in particular demand to speed the pace of works. ‘There are about 10,000 structures on the Metronet side of the Tube alone,’ said Nixon. ‘This means it is also hard to fill structural roles. The Underground is a real boom sector at present.’

Elsewhere in the country, one of the largest companies in the UK rail sector is looking for fresh employees to participate in numerous projects across the country.

Network Rail manages 17 of the largest stations on eight principal routes. It spends £14m a daymaintaining and improving railinfrastructure, including that of 26 key strategic routes.

Last year it upgraded around 700 miles of track, 500 miles of sleepers, 500 miles of ballast, and 600 switches and crossings. As might be expected, the company is therefore looking for engineers to fill a variety of roles.

‘Network Rail has a much more diverse need for a whole range of engineers than people tend to anticipate,’ said Toni Harvey, Resourcing Manager (Engineering & NDS) at Network Rail. ‘Some, such as the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) specialists — particularly systems design engineers — are likely to require previous rail experience, as will the electrification and plant engineers.

‘However, we also need chartered civil engineers, structural engineers and people in specialist areas such as geotech and mining who may not have previous rail experience — though this would be preferred.’

In addition to its part in the Thameslink, Crossrail, and Olympics-related projects, the company is in the middle of other enhancement work on, among others, the West Coast line, the Airdrie to Bathgate line, the Edinburgh Airport Link and the Intercity Express programme. The ERTMS project is also fully operational and urgently needs engineers to help the company meet its tight timelines.

Aside from its rail works programme, Network Rail is also heavily involved in the King’s Cross Station development programme, which must be delivered before the Olympics in 2012. This involves working closely with a range of critical construction partners, stakeholders and customers.

‘It is a great opportunity to further enhance Network Rail’s reputation as a reliable deliverer of major capital projects and to be part of the creation of a new London landmark building,’ said Harvey. ‘Here we are looking for experienced construction, civil and structural engineers rather than rail specialists.’

In future, she said that Crossrail and Thameslink will have a significant impact on the rail industry, while local projects such as work to upgrade Birmingham New Street station will have a direct impact on their local areas for some time.

While many new staff are actively being sought, this trend will continue in the foreseeable future. ‘Demand for quality engineers will continue as the projects develop and new initiatives are approved, such as the redevelopment of other major stations,’ she explained.

But it is not just the UK’s rail industry that is desperate to recruit staff, and overseas employers are actively seeking engineers with relevant experience who are thinking of making a permanent or temporary move abroad.

In marked similarity to the UK’s rail industry, New Zealand for example is investing heavily in rail upgrades of its railways following renationalisation of its railways in 2003. It is looking for engineers across the board, with a particular interest in skilled mechanical, civil, electrical, project, and structural personnel.

‘When the our government repurchased the country’s network, it recognised there had been significant under-investment in infrastructure during its years in private sector ownership,’ explained Mark Lunny, director of Kiwi-lifestyle, a company dedicated to finding overseas residents employment in New Zealand. ‘It agreed to invest £82m to upgrade the infrastructure.’ Project partners and transport operating company Toll also agreed to spend £41m on upgrading rolling stock, creating the need for a number of engineering staff in the country.

‘Growing pressure on the road network and a greater appreciation of the advantages rail has over road for the haulage of bulk freight and passengers has rejuvenated interest in rail,’ said Lunny. ‘The result is likely to be an increase on thevolumes of traffic carried and an expansion of the track network,’ he added.

‘At present, there is also an increase in infrastructure building occurring in the main centres due to an increase in population. This means that skilled workers would have no issues in obtaining employment with major engineering organisations throughout New Zealand.’

Salaries in the country are reasonably comparable to those in the UK, particularly in the case of those offered outside London. Meanwhile, New Zealand’s rail organisations are aware of the skills shortages the country is experiencing and are therefore willing to ensure skilled employees are paid appropriately.

But Lunny said that for those willing to make the move abroad, the big advantage of the country is its lifestyle. ‘In many ways it’s not what we have that’s important to our quality of life — it’s what we don’t have,’ he said.

‘We don’t have the pollution, congestion, health issues and cramped city living that we see elsewhere, and most of us live within half an hour’s drive of the coast.’

So whether you are seeking work at home or abroad, it seems that this is an exciting time to be an engineering specialist in this area.

Projects such as Crossrail and King’s Cross station will allow those involved to be part of landmark constructions, and with millions of pounds being poured into the upgrading and extension of the railways, there will be plenty of employment opportunities across the board for many years to come.