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Crossrail and Thameslink drive demand for skilled rail workers

Major schemes and the move into Network Rail’s CP5 are increasing demand for skilled rail workers, particularly in signalling and electrification. But with HS2 fast approaching, what are the implications for contractors working on Network Rail projects?

Contractors working in the UK rail sector are fortunate to have a forward pipeline of £38bn over the five years from 2014 to 2019 available to them.

Much of the work has already been procured under CP5, with long-term deals the order of the day.

The nature of these contracts allows contractors to plan ahead – but firms working in the sector are still experiencing shortages in certain job roles.

Big projects

In addition to the work awarded under CP5, two big projects are driving demand for workers while keeping contractors busy: Thameslink and Crossrail.

The £6.5bn government-backed Thameslink programme is due to complete in 2018, with most of the work now focused on improvements to London Bridge station.

Platform lengthening, track work and station upgrades have already been completed at other stations, including West Hampstead, Farringdon and Blackfriars.

“For us, Thameslink comes to an end in the year,” says Carillion systems and services director in its rail division, Richard Ladd.

“The bigger one that’s been going for just under a year but will begin to ramp up is Crossrail.”

Crossrail’s tunnelling work is due to complete in the second quarter of 2015, leaving works in the stations, on the surface and in tunnel shafts and portals.

“The enabling works, particularly at the west end at Acton, Paddington and all the way out to Heathrow, there’s a huge amount of work there,” Mr Ladd says.

“As a single project, Crossrail is the biggest.”

Electrification excellence

Outside of these big projects, the CP5 work will also ensure demand for skilled workers remains high.

“We’re seeing good opportunities in areas such as signalling; overhead line electrification; bridges; track design; reliability, availability, maintainability, safety (RAMS); traction power; and building information modelling,” says Mott MacDonald electrification divisional director Tony O’Toole.

“It is currently a challenge to fill roles in the RAMS, traction power, OLE and signalling disciplines.”

Mr Ladd at Carillion agrees that electrification and signalling are the two disciplines most in demand.

“If I was going to pick two job roles, it would be electrification roles – everything from design, through to project management, through to linesmen. The other is signalling staff.

“But whenever you have these big programmes they all have civil engineering associated with them and general project management to go with them, and those skills are in demand, too.”

Major electrification programmes are taking place on the Midland Main Line and the Great Western Main Line this year under CP5.

The problem here is that, particularly in electrification, there is no historical skills base to draw on.

With no previously electrified railway as there is in the South-east, once you head past Reading “there’s no historical competence there”, according to Mr Ladd.

“The only historical competence is in London, Crewe, Peterborough, Leeds and a couple of others.

“There’s no previous experience in Wales, for example.”

The signalling market is being driven by the move into CP5, which started last year, with the re-signalling of the Great Western Main Line ramping up this year.

Mr Ladd also warns of a “triple whammy” around signalling, as such work is also required on the Crossrail and Thameslink schemes, while some electrification skill is needed in each instance, too.

Soaring salaries

The result of this squeeze on available skills, particularly in London and the South-east, is that salaries are inevitably rising.

“It really is creating pressure for us,” Mr Ladd says.

“To give you an example, we had a graduate civil engineer who we’d been working hard with on electrification, we recruited him from university for £26,000, and now he’s gone to work for an electrification competitor for £36,000.

“That gives you an idea of the pressure in the sector.”

Mr O’Toole confirms that Mott MacDonald is experiencing similar challenges and that he “expects that trend to carry on this year”.

As well as rising salaries, however, it means contractors are increasing the numbers of agency staff on their books – “probably more than we’d like to”, Mr Ladd admits.

On-track solutions

To try to tackle the skills shortages in these areas, Network Rail has launched an engineering conversion course, taking people with basic engineering disciplines from a different sector and fast-tracking them into skill shortage areas, such as electrification.

Contractors are then able to feed suitable candidates into the course, with similar fast-track programmes under way in the signalling sector.

“We took on eight signalling apprentices last year and are about to bring on six this year,” Mr Ladd says.

But longer term, all of these trends look set to continue unless the sector can find a large influx of skilled labour – and that’s all down to the fact that High Speed 2 is fast approaching.

This means salaries will continue to rise and the numbers of agency staff may well increase, too, at least in the short term.

“I’m a father of 17 and 13-year-old boys who live in the Midlands,” Mr Ladd says.

“I always say if they’re wondering what to do, they should enter railway signalling and electrification.

“With HS2 coming, this is just going to continue – probably until it’s built.”

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