Big ambitions: Building sustainable growth in the UK rail industry

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 16

Terence Watson, industry chair of the Rail Supply Group and country president of Alstom UK & Ireland, discusses the aims and ambitions of the recently launched ‘Fast Track to the Future’ strategy.

The Rail Supply Group (RSG) brings together private sector leaders from large and small businesses across the rail industry with government. With the rail sector generating £3.4bn for the UK economy each year, and the supply chain directly employing over 124,000 people, it’s easy to see the importance of our industry to the economy. 

With HS2 on the horizon and other much needed investments in upgrades, signalling and electrification happening across the UK network, we are at a time of rare opportunity. It is therefore essential the UK rail industry seizes this chance to renew our sector and kick-start a new wave of UK manufacturing and exporting. 

As the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin MP, has said, we are funding the biggest rail modernisation programme since Victorian times, creating opportunities for UK suppliers across the country. And with the global rail market also predicted to grow at 2.7% a year, the new RSG strategy, launched in February, is designed to provide the framework and support that will allow UK rail businesses to take advantage of this investment.

The RSG strategy represents the first clear statement of the aims of the rail supply sector as it seeks to build sustainable growth in the UK rail industry and also to develop our export strength. Drafted by representatives from over 50 rail businesses, unions and organisations, with contributions from many more, it is an inclusive summary of the current position of the industry and its ambitions for the future. 

Productivity Pledge 

The strategy sets out the RSG’s plan to implement its Productivity Pledge, and commits the rail supply sector to deliver: 

  • A strategic approach to procurement and planning
  • A clear plan to drive world-class UK technologies
  • A coherent skills plan to attract the best talent and increase productivity
  • A comprehensive package of support for SMEs
  • A fresh, co-ordinated approach to increase exports and inward investment 

A rail supply sector that achieves these goals will be ideally placed to approach the opportunities presented to it in the coming years. To get there, the RSG has focused on four strategic pillars to drive growth. Through concerted action in each of these areas the supply chain can prepare itself for sustainable success at home and abroad: 

  • Creating market conditions for growth
  • Accelerating the uptake of innovation
  • Investing in people and skills
  • Growing exports and inward investment 

In each of these areas the RSG’s strategy sets out achievable proposals to support the supply chain. 

Rail Supply Group

Enhancing productivity 

As Sajid Javid MP, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, said, industry is best placed to assess its own needs and priorities. It is appropriate that the rail industry should produce a plan to revitalise its own supply chain, bringing together the extensive experience of the UK’s railway manufacturers to speak with one voice on the needs of the sector. 

Our efforts will play a key part in enhancing productivity. The UK is trailing other G7 economies in labour productivity by 18%. Manufacturing is an area of the economy where this trend can be reversed. Through careful investment in innovation and developing our high-skilled workforce, rail can play an important part in unlocking the productive potential of the UK economy. 

And we know that a high-performing rail supply chain will provide productivity benefits far beyond the rail sector. Rail enhances the productive potential of the economy by up to £11.3bn per year, and that up to £1.7bn of benefits are derived from sharing knowledge and technology in the clusters that rail links facilitate.

Attracting new talent 

Of the four pillars in the strategy, it is worth highlighting one in particular; investing in people and skills. 

New technologies, innovation and productivity growth all require a highly skilled workforce to develop and implement these new solutions. And a key part of RSG’s strategy is to help secure the workforce that the industry needs. 

We face challenges such as a lack of diversity in an ageing workforce, and a widening skills gap. It is clear that much more must be done to attract new talent. 

The government has had great successes attracting young women to study STEM subjects, but it is vital that young people are made aware of the benefits of a career in the rail industry. RSG will work with government to increase promotional activity in schools and colleges to help ensure young people have access to information and ambassadors for rail careers. 

The industry has been set an ambitious target by Terry Morgan, chairman of Crossrail, in his Transport Infrastructure Skills Plan to increase the number of apprentices. The importance of meeting this target cannot be understated; Engineering UK estimates that the UK as a whole will need to produce 10,000 engineering graduates every year until 2020 to maintain current employment levels. By again providing a strong, single voice for the rail supply chain, the RSG will work to achieve this growth in apprenticeships through the production of a detailed skills plan, including raising the profile of the industry to attract and retain a diverse workforce. 

It is also essential that training is adequate to meet the needs of new and changing technologies. This is important not just to deliver effective training to prepare new recruits for work on the modern railway, but also to upskill experienced staff to equip them for today’s rapidly changing railway. Measures such as the RSG’s proposed Assessment and Assurance Panel and its Skills Intelligence Unit will monitor the quality of the sector’s training offering and its skills gap respectively. The RSG will also support the development of a network of training facilities to increase the availability and visibility of the highest quality training capacity across the UK. 

By delivering these changes for new and existing workers the rail sector can transform its productivity in support of a globally competitive industry. At Alstom we are already starting to set out our plans for a new integrated manufacturing facility, centre of rail excellence and training academy at Widnes. 

A strong rail sector supply chain is essential for our future productivity, and the commitment to take on thousands of new apprentices will provide opportunities for our young people to start successful careers in our vital sector. Working together, we will double the industry’s export volumes, drive economic growth and create thousands of new jobs and apprenticeships across the country. 

The UK was a rail industry pioneer and RSG firmly believes that this new strategy will ensure we are global leaders for years to come. I call on everyone within the UK rail supply chain to work with us as we start to realise these plans.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


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