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How training will keep the rail network on track

The recent headlines about High Speed 2 have really put the rail sector in the spotlight, and the challenge of meeting the skills gap that has developed in recent years has become the focus of attention for increasing numbers of people.

During 2012 Vital Skills Training recruited more than 300 rail engineering apprentices and established regional training academies in Manchester, London, York, Leicester and Kidderminster. 

Vital’s target for 2013 is to recruit apprentices for the rail, power and technology sectors aged between 16 and 24 years old across the UK in areas including smart metering, software engineering, installation and maintenance and overhead power line engineering.

Skills shortage risks rail investment

The industry is well aware of the need to fill this gap and the report from the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering for the Office of Rail Regulation confirmed what we already knew: that without a concerted effort to attract new people and train them in the necessary skills, the planned £25 billion investment in more than 200 rail projects over the next seven years is at risk.

These projects include infrastructure enhancements and renewals as well as rolling stock new build and refurbishment. Those most at risk, however, are the major electrification schemes, HS2, and the introduction of large fleets of new trains for the likes of Thameslink, Crossrail, the Intercity Express Programme and London Overground.

Vital Skills Training is well placed to help address the demand for skilled personnel, and has already tackled one of the specific problems highlighted by the NSARE report by introducing new apprenticeships in traction and rolling stock – areas of the rail industry identified as facing an “absolute gap” in skills in the coming years.

Age and demand factors

This gap is partly due to the fact that 20 per cent of the current workforce is over the age of 55, and partly because of the high demand anticipated from a range of major rail projects, including the introduction of the European Train Control System.

“Projects most at risk are the major electrification schemes, HS2, and the introduction of large fleets of new trains”

Training for roles across the sector is delivered at our academies around the country and, with the announcement of the HS2 routes between the Midlands, Leeds and Manchester, our York Rail Academy is poised to provide a broad range of rail engineering training to the existing workforce as well as to new apprentices entering the sector.

In addition to HS2, there is a significant amount of railway investment along the east coast and on trans-Pennine routes, which will also demand a trained, skilled workforce.

With up to 2,000 more employees needed over the next five years to meet demand in signalling and telecommunications, and a further 1,000 for electrification and plant, the challenge is clear – and one the industry is facing up to with enthusiasm.

Lawrence Dobie is education and training director at Vital Skills Training

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