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19.05.17

Upskilling our workforce: how we need to think

Source: RTM Apr/May 17

Simon Rennie (pictured centre), general manager of the National Training Academy for Rail, on the importance of upskilling the current workforce in addition to recruiting new entrants.

Are railways still transformational? Really transformational? Railways were the future once, but do they remain so? 

The World Bank records that by 1980, over a million kilometres of rail route existed globally. To indulge in a bit of extrapolation, this means that in the 150-year period since the Rainhill Trials, railways, on average, had been built across the world at a rate equivalent to the circumference of the planet every six years. That was real transformation – fundamentally replacing older modes of transformation and implementing large-scale transport networks accessible for common use in a way never before seen and on a massive scale transforming economies, industry and society. The equivalent of over 6,500km of brand new railway. Every year. For 150 years. Compare and contrast with the approximate 200km of HS2’s phase 1 (equivalent to just over 20km per annum over its projected build phase). 

What do current programmes of work mean for the railways of our magnificent but congested island? Are we trapped in a cycle of incremental, expensive and difficult upgrading given the reliance on existing century-old infrastructure – a classic case of being unable to stop to sharpen the axe given the requirement to keep chopping down trees? Digital matters – a lot – but is our current agenda truly innovative, or the 21st-century equivalent of installing sophisticated automation to gas lighting or canal lock gates – seeking out the best of what in big parts remains a Victorian (and pre-Victorian) way of getting around? 

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Digital disruption and ongoing relevance 

Rail embodies an inherent tension between analogue and digital, with multiple technologies of very different lifespans often wrapped up in a single asset. For the sake of argument, say that the overall useful life of a new train is 30 years: what technical, social and economic changes will take place over that timeframe that define the usefulness of the train and whether or not it remains relevant in 2047 (as opposed to being too expensive to throw away)? 

To use a few 20th-century examples of what can be achieved in that timeframe: this is the gap between the Wright brothers’ inaugural flight and that of the Spitfire. Add on a further 32 years to reach the era of supersonic passenger aircraft. Equally, 30 years is the period between the US launch of the VHS recorder and that of the iPhone. The point being, to misquote: the future is a different country and they will do things differently there. 

Our industry cannot yet claim to be able to deliver digital change at pace. By way of example, GSM-R roll-out took place between 2007 and 2016 but it was noted in the pages of RTM’s Feb/March edition that GSM-R will be discontinued in a little over 10 years’ time (or put another way, little more than the implementation timescale) before being superseded by 5G. Digital Railways’ current scope of work is far more complex and, unmitigated, will take years longer. Equally, if staff attrition rates when new fleets are deployed are a yard-stick, there is more than a sense that the deployment of advanced technologies drive away as many of our existing workforce as it attracts – advancement of the type that will keep us relevant doesn’t universally sit comfortably with us as an industry. 

Competing modes of transport 

Why does any of this matter? In the hierarchy of transport, rail currently enjoys a significant funding advantage over road – its partner sector in the DfT’s Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy. Based simply on CP5 levels of funding, central government investment in rail outweighs that in road by a ratio of three to one – and yet the findings of studies presented by Professor John Miles of the University of Cambridge at last year’s Rail Industry Association Innovation Conference suggest that investment in smart roads and autonomous vehicles could ultimately deliver three times the passenger capacity for a quarter of the cost and with reduced environmental impact compared with investment in high-speed rail. 

Rail as an industry should not take its position for granted given the rapid emergence of alternative competing technology and propositions that stop being science fiction, become deliverable and start to make good competitive and economic sense when weighed up against the case for ongoing investment in rail. 

So, what is the point of all this, interesting as it may be, in the context of a piece about people and skills?  

Political support that today translates into investment is not an indefinite gift that keeps on giving and will have to be earned in future by engaged, motivated and talented people who are open to and can lead, deliver and communicate effective change. There is an economic imperative to ensure we develop a culture of ambition, urgency and a strong ability to analyse and stay ahead of other modes of transport as opposed to being content with incremental changes. 

The key messages are these: 

  • Today is a golden opportunity. As an industry, we enjoy significant funding to support maintenance, upgrades and flagship projects. We have a unique opportunity to make rail an appealing place not just to join but as an environment in which to develop a broad range of skills including advanced digital. Let’s promote that. Really promote that in shouting about our breadth and ambition
  • The apprenticeship levy gives us the means by which to fund high-quality schemes both for new entrants and our existing workforce, whether that be in rail systems, rail engineering, rail engineering design, or leadership and management. Learning at different levels and career pathways are becoming more joined-up and better defined. That helps us compete for and retain great talent. To repeat: new standards and new funding can be pointed at our existing people and they are not the preserve of new entrants
  • The current economic climate is helpful in upskilling our people. With the cost of finance still at an historic low, leasing new trains with reduced maintenance costs is more attractive than ever. When those new trains come with factory-fitted digital technology, that provides both drivers and assets for training in one go, while creating an agenda for upskilling and change wherever new technology is deployed
  • Collaboration is king. Skills shortages are more easily resolved when working together – standards are created, funding is secured, facilities are created, academia delivers content that aligns to industry, talent that would be lost is retained within the industry. Let’s do more of this
  • Historical innovators still provide the benchmark for ambition and step changes. Hyperloop owes as much to Robert Goddard’s maglev vacuum tubes in 1910 and to Brunel’s atmospheric railway 70 years earlier as much as anything else. How do we recreate those step changes? 

In closing, there is a well-worn but valid message: adapt or die. Alternatively, welcome to a slow death. If we’re not true to delivering real and ongoing transformation on that historical scale, somebody else will.

For More Information

W: www.ntar.co.uk

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