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Skills needed for electrification boom

Increased spending in rail, particularly around electrification, means the demand for staff is growing.

  • More investment means more people
  • Long-term thinking
  • Getting more people in

Following the signing of Network Rail’s £2bn electrification framework, the hottest topic by far was how to get enough trained people into the industry.

More investment means more people

It is easy to see why. The next spending round, control period 5 (CP5), which runs from April 2014 to 2019, is £2.6bn bigger than the previous five-year period at £35.7bn.

Within this, spending on electrification has rocketed from £200m to £2bn. This ramp up in work means corresponding rise in the number of skilled people needed to undertake it.

The National Skills Academy for Rail Engineering estimates that the number of people skilled in electrification and electrical plant, such as engineers and technicians, needs to grow by 1,000 people.

This represents a significant rise, since the NSARE says there are currently 3,500 people in the sector. The figure also allow for replacement of people retiring and leaving the industry.

The rail industry overall needs 8,000 to 10,000 additional people including replacements for retirees over the five years of CP5, the NSARE says.

Long-term thinking

Network Rail said a reason it tried to award the frameworks for CP5 early and made them long term was so contractors could hire and train the people they need safe in the knowledge there would be plenty of work for them.

Carillion and SPL Powerlines UK, whose joint venture won the contracts for the East Midlands region and the Scotland and North-east region in the electrification framework, began investing in training well ahead of the win because they knew more people would be needed.

Between them, the two companies have five facilities where trainees can do hands-on learning on mini versions of overhead powerline spans.

The company has taken on all sorts of people including those that have worked in other industries and wanted a career with better prospects, says SPL Powerlines UK managing director Martin Hawley. The two companies have trained 36 people in 12 months.

Foreign workers will play a part. Carillion Rail national electrification programme project director Martin Smith says it will bring experienced linesmen and supervisors over from the continent, where there has been far more electrification work, to act as mentors to new UK recruits.

They will return home once the UK staff are ready to take over.

But the company is keen to train up UK workers for the contract. Carillion Rail head of electrification and power Paul Storey says: “The key for me is employing local people. If they are local they don’t have to travel and we don’t have to hotel them and it helps the area.”

Getting more people in

Network Rail has also set up a range of initiatives to get more people into the industry. It has apprenticeships and graduates schemes plus a conversion course for the rail industry to help engineers from another discipline use their skills in rail.

Again, this scheme will help to reduce the shortage of electrification engineers and could be expanded to other disciplines such as civil engineering. So far about 40 or 50 people have done the course and nine more are on it at the moment.

The railway operator is opening several new multi-million-pound training centres. One at York, worth £14.6m, will open in April; an electrification training facility will open in Swindon in September; and a £17m training centre in Basingstoke in December.

The York centre will act as the central hub for an electrification academy with training delivered more locally.

Network Rail head of professional development and training Guy Wilmshurst-Smith says: “In the next six months we will have doubled our capability in delivery of training.”

Network Rail engineering capability manager John English points out that they also need to train people to replace those who retire and workers to maintain the newly electrified lines.

Both agree that to make this training push a success, experienced rail engineers with good communication skills need to take time out of the day job to deliver training.

Mr Wilmshurst-Smith says: “Good professional development can only be led by practising engineers.

“They need to be the best role models of safety behaviour. Send the message to best engineers that they should spend some of the next 12 to 48 months actively delivering training.”

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