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Signal Engineering Resources Seminar

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At the end of March, Network Rail unveiled its programme of works for CP5, covering the five years from 2014 to 2019. Writes David Bickell

Introducing the £38 billion programme, Mark Carne, Network Rail’s Chief Executive said: “As a result of the investments we will be making in the next five years, by 2019 the country’s rail network will be delivering 225 million more passenger journeys each year. More trains per day will run between our northern cities. 170,000 extra seats will be available on trains going into our large cities nationwide. 500 more level crossings will be closed.

“In London, the Thameslink programme, and in Birmingham the New Street development, will both be completed, as will main line electrification in Wales and the West Country. In Scotland, the Borders project will reconnect the Scottish Borders to Edinburgh for the first time in 50 years.

“At the same time, we will be trying to deliver ‘more for less’ in the way we operate and run the railway on a daily basis. In the next 10 years, passenger and freight traffic is forecast to increase by over 30 per cent. Simultaneously, we are aiming to reduce the cost of running the railway. In the next five years, our target is a 20 per cent reduction on top of the 15 per cent reduction achieved in the last five years – a saving of over 30 per cent in a decade.”

Signalling in demand

Within Network Rail’s £38 billion, signalling will have £3.2 billion to spend over the next five years, within which an efficiency gain of £580 million will be expected – a significant challenge. Major work will be undertaken to develop a national traffic management system, migrate signalling control to Rail Operating Centres (ROCs) and install modular signalling on secondary lines and ERTMS/ETCS on the main trunk routes.

On top of all this there will be signalling work on London Underground (which has a £1 billion budget), the installation of signalling in Crossrail’s new tunnels and its integration with national systems at either end, and the planning of HS2.

In the summer of 2013, Network Rail commissioned the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) to undertake a detailed review of existing signal engineering resources in the light of the planned workload for CP5. Recently, one hundred delegates from the industry gathered in London to hear the results of this review and to participate in a discussion on the key issues.

Industry view

Setting the scene, Jeremy Candfield of the Railway Industry Association (RIA) explained that there was considerable apprehension about skills shortages for signalling and that this was a particular concern with particular significance in the context of the delivery of CP5 works. In the RIA Business Survey of 2010, 50% of business respondents indicated that they would be affected by a skills shortage. By the 2012 and 2013 surveys, that had risen to 100%.

At a recent meeting of the RIA Infrastructure Clients Interface Group, two major signalling companies spontaneously made a clear statement of the difficulties of securing and retaining skilled staff. Why should this be?

Jeremy alluded to the investment history of ‘feast and famine’, not helped by the major upheavals of privatisation and Railtrack going into administration. Electrification “has been lumpy” since the 1940s with periods of no new work. Orders for new rolling stock have been hugely variable. All sectors have been affected by what was described as an investment roller coaster without the fun.

The review

Elaine Clark, NSARE’s head of training and skills, introduced the report by explaining that its scope had been to baseline existing resources and compare them against both renewals and maintenance projects, to identify the effects of international work by UK companies and of international resources available to work on UK projects, to review the IRSE (Institution of Railway Signal Engineers) Licensing Scheme and to identify any skills gap.

The study was specific to signal engineering, not including telecommunications. A steering group was set up and 45 supply chain companies were invited to provide input via a questionnaire.

The results highlighted problems that suppliers faced with up to 30% rework at the project design stage, poor visibility of future workload, a lack of detailed information from projects that would aid understanding of future resources and the need for better processes to support non- licenced trainees gaining experience on site.

Training and assessment issues were also identified with a lack of consistent training programmes and no standard training modules, not all training provision being ‘quality assured’ and a shortage of partnerships with training providers, colleges, universities.

The IRSE Licensing Scheme was seen as providing a positive contribution. Assessment and accreditation was seen as being independent and the rigour/regime of the log book works well. It has a good modular approach and, in general, the ‘levels’ of categories of licence were correct. However, a few issues were identified. The recertification process could be simplified, there is a variation in the time and cost of competence assessment, and there are difficulties with cross-licensing for signalling design and testing.

The current situation

At present, there are over 900 projects in the forthcoming workbank and an existing workforce of around 9,200 people (4,200 doing maintenance and 5,000 engaged on projects). Of these, 4,539 hold IRSE licences. The age profile is such that 400 are over 60 years old and another 700 are in the range 55-59.

In 2013/14, the industry is just about coping but there is going to be a significant shortfall in two years time with an identified work gap of 2,600 – 3,400 of which 47% are at technician/ engineer level.

Delegates discussed the problem of design rework and inefficiencies within the Governance for Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) process. Mark Southwell of Network Rail explained that these issues were being tackled with the ‘TARDIS’ initiative, the benefits of which will be a new GRIP 1-4 process which will:

  • Improve the robustness of client remits with clear scopes and outputs identified and ‘locked down’, minimising the risk of subsequent scope change;
  • Reduce GRIP 1-4 timescales resulting in lower project costs and shorter project duration between first authority and commissioning;
  • Help to deliver the stretched efficiency target within the strategic business plan (SBP) submission over and above the 16% identified through existing initiatives;
  • Increase expectation that there will be further benefits in the future as a result of ORBIS due to improved/easier-to-access asset and condition data being available without the need for ‘walking the ballast’, thus reducing the level of seed funding required;
  • Facilitate undertaking these works early which will also help to de-risk the programme/project;
  • Minimise the risk of abortive costs as these schemes are condition-driven projects and therefore the likelihood of these schemes progressing to full authority once the GRIP work has been undertaken is very high.

IRSE Licensing Scheme

Colin Porter of IRSE outlined the principles of the scheme. He explained that it came into being in 1994 following the setting up of a cross industry group facilitated by the IRSE to address competence issues flagged up in the report of the Rail Accident at Clapham Junction (issues 111 and 112, January and February 2014).

The Scheme is considered to provide useful benefits and is a non- profit making venture for the IRSE. However, as it is twenty years old, recommendations for improvement include modularisation to facilitate mobility and multi-tasking, the introduction of new categories for train-borne systems, other software based systems and signal sighting, and a common standard for competence at specific equipment/task level and the issuing of Authority to Work. 6,000 people (many of them overseas) hold competence certificates issued by the IRSE of which 5,020 are members.

Delegates suggested there should be more transparency on the basis of charging as there was some variation of time/cost of assessments. The need for higher level categories such as ‘Senior Engineering Manager’ was also challenged and some perceived the scheme as overly complicated and complex and this needs to change.

Colin stressed that the IRSE is keen to continue to work within the industry and make sure that the Scheme should not be a barrier to increasing the workforce.


Following the presentations and discussions, the things that the industry needs to do can be summarised as:

  • Plan better to remove the boom and bust and smooth out the work profile;
  • Collaborate better and share best practice;
  • Reduce rework by improving specifications;
  • Solve the brain drain and stop talented people leaving the industry;
  • Attract good people into the industry including more graduates and apprentices;
  • Have better utilisation of people within the industry;
  • Improve the IRSE Licensing Scheme.

If it adopts these actions, the signalling industry should go a long way towards meeting the challenges of CP5, and beyond.


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