Mind the gap: The need for rail engineering skills

This blog outlines the scale of the engineering skills challenge in UK rail and reflects on some of the steps that are being, and need to be, taken in order to address it.

Maintenance work at Baker Street station in London
Maintenance work at Baker Street station in London
  • Updated: 09 December, 2015
  • Author: Andrew Boagey, Railway Engineers Forum Chair

At the ICE Transport Expert Panel we try to take a ‘long view’ of the latest reports and publications, as well as working to support the ICE objective to build a world-class engineering workforce.

Skills shortages

The Office of Rail and Road published its annual Efficiency and Finance Assessment of Network Rail in October. The report identifies a number of key challenges around the supply of skills in the rail sector. Its focus is on critical skills shortages in areas outside of the remit of civil engineering, particularly in signalling and electrification.

Yet, careful consideration of the report does point to a future deficit in the number of skilled track workers. To quote: ‘there is no ‘gap’ in the overall numbers in the track workforce… due to the large volume of flexible, part-time individuals available at the semi-skilled level.’ The permanent workforce has been largely out-sourced. This much we know. However, it continues: ‘This picture masks an important issue however - the need to replace a number of higher level qualified and experienced people that will retire over the coming years.’

Meanwhile, the pausing and un-pausing of projects – like the Network Rail Midland Mainline and TransPennine projects that were temporarily put on hold in June – only exacerbates the difficulties that the rail sector faces in recruiting and investing in skills.

The most important question to ask in all of this is: what is being done to address the skills challenge?

To its credit, Network Rail has recognised that there is a variety of skills shortages in the rail sector and towards the end of October announced an increase of over 50% in the number of engineering graduate recruits for 2016.

Great news, of course.

There are now 80 places across civil, mechanical and electrical. Blog readers may be interested to know that there are 150 graduate places in total. The others are split between general management, finance, property, project management, business technology, supply chain and HR.

Projected gap

However, there is much more that needs to be done in order to ensure that the UK’s rail sector contains the number of engineers that are needed to deliver the major projects of the next five years. Indeed, the National Infrastructure Plan for Skills paints an even clearer picture of the projected gap between the current and future supply of engineering skills in the rail sector:

  • In high speed rail the number of engineering and technical workers will need to grow by 7,200 by 2020
  • In conventional rail the number of engineering and technical workers will need to grow by 900 by 2020

Delivering 8,100 new engineering and technical workers to the rail sector requires a collaborative effort between government and industry. ICE too has a vital role to play and to this end will be undertaking a variety of dedicated work through the Transport Expert Panel in order to help address the engineering skills challenge that the UK’s rail sector currently faces.

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About the author

Andrew Boagey CEng MICE is a member of the ICE Transport Panel and Chair of the Railway Engineers’ Forum.