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Industry focus: rail industry

We look at what's going on within the UK's rail industry, what skills employers are after, what opportunities are out there and what are the best routes into the sector.

Rail industry in focus

The UK rail network consists of 20,000 miles of track and more than 2,500 stations, facilitating more than 1.3 billion passenger journeys a year. Around 190,000 people work across the UK rail industry and the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) estimates that 100,000 of these are involved in railway engineering of some kind.

Elaine Clark, head of business services at the academy, explains that it breaks down into two "unequal halves". Some 85,000 engineers work in infrastructure compared to 15,000 in traction and rolling stock. She adds that based on skills analysis from last year, 1,500 to 1,800 of the jobs are at higher professional levels. Overall, NSARE estimates that the industry needs to recruit over 10,000 people in the next five years.

What's happening in the rail industry?

In short, a great deal. The UK rail industry is witnessing the biggest period of investment since the Victorian era. It is much needed given the network is carrying twice as many people as it did 20 years ago.

Grabbing most of the headlines, of course, is the controversial £42 billion High Speed Two (HS2) rail link project which will link the South and North of the country. It is estimated that Phase 1 (London to the West Midlands) could support 40,000 new jobs and the second phase up to 70,000. At the time of writing though, there are calls for it to be scrapped and the money spent on smaller transport infrastructure projects. The future of the rail industry isn't just focused on HS2 though.

Network Rail has a multi-billion pound programme to maintain and build "a better railway for Britain" and has an extensive electrification programme. One of its biggest projects is electrifying the Great Western Railway, which will improve one of Britain's busiest and oldest railways and connect major towns and cities across Southern England and South Wales.

Meanwhile, Crossrail remains Europe's biggest construction project and involves building eight new stations in central London and Docklands and upgrading many existing stations. When it opens in 2018 it will increase London's rail-based transport network by 10 per cent and cut journey times across the city. Alongside these projects, there will also be major work taking place to implement new signaling technology and a 30-year programme to replace most of the current line signals (traffic lights) with in-cab technology.

It isn't all about infrastructure though and Network Rail is currently working on a prototype battery-powered train with train manufacturer Bombardier as part of a feasibility study of using electric trains on parts of the network that haven't been electrified.

What skills are employers asking for today and in the future?

The major infrastructure projects are good news for engineers across the construction, design, electrical and mechanical disciplines. There is no doubt though that electrification skills will be much in demand.

Keith Rudd, director and UKMEA rail business leader at global consultancy Arup, says that following an intensive period of electrification in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a decline in this discipline and there is now a shortfall of talent.

“The strategy within Arup to fill this skills shortage leans heavily towards graduate recruitment and training along with apprenticeship schemes,” he says. He adds that there is also a shortage of skilled signaling engineers.

Network Rail confirms electrical engineers will be key to future programmes but adds that mechanical engineers are always "greatly sought after". And while technical skills are vital, it stresses that it also recruits for attitude.

"A teamwork ethic and a desire to learn and share knowledge will be something we will look upon favourably,” says a spokesperson.

Meanwhile TRE, which supplies products and services to improve the supervision and control of railways and is involved in the roll-out of Network Rail's traffic management system, says it will be looking for software programmers, data engineers, systems integrators for its simulation and control products.

Software skills, systems engineers at an integration and architecture level as well as engineering project management are cited as the hot skills by Bombardier, alongside electrical engineering. Clark sums up the key in-demand areas as: electrical and mechanical engineering skills for electrification projects; system engineers to design and implement new signal technology; and design engineers for track and signal work including commissioning and testing.

Who are your potential employers?

Countless organisations make up the rail industry and it is best broken down as follows.

Infrastructure owners include Network Rail, Transport for London (TfL) and Crossrail and some of the main contractors working in this part of the industry are Arup, Babcock, Amey, Balfour Beatty, Carillion and Colas.

Design consultancies serving this part of the sector include Atkins, Mott MacDonald and a number of smaller specialist design houses.

There are four UK-based companies that design and build trains: Alstom, Bombardier, Hitachi and Siemens.

Train operating companies (TOCs), which also employ engineers, work on a franchise basis and lease rolling stock to provide passenger services and these include South West Trains, East Coast, Virgin and Arriva. Within TfL, London Underground is both the infrastructure owner and the train operating company.

There are also freight operating companies (FOC), which operate the freight business and finally train maintenance and supply chain companies which provide parts for trains and maintenance services.

What are the best routes into the industry?

Many of the organisations mentioned here recruit both graduates and apprentices and see these as key ways to meet the challenge of securing the right talent over the next five and ten years. Information can be found in the career sections of their corporate websites. Also check out NSARE’s site and the official Apprenticeships site.

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