The bigger picture

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2012

Philippa Oldham, head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), spoke to RTM about the HLOS investment and what this will mean for the next generation of trainees.

In July 16, the Government announced a package of investment in the rail network worth £9.2bn. The High Level Output Specification (HLOS) detailed around £5bn worth of work for the completion of current schemes during CP5, with another £4bn to fund new projects.

Head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Philippa Oldham, welcomed the breadth of the specification.

Virtually the whole country got a look-in, with investment for all sorts of regional projects announced all over the country, as well as those with more strategic and national implications, to create an integrated network across the UK. Oldham told RTM that the announcement was “really positive”, in this way – for its consideration of the bigger picture.

“We don’t often see that from the Government,” Oldham said.

While most of the industry celebrated the announcement, parts of which went above and beyond what had been expected, there were inevitably schemes that missed out on funding.

Among the more high-profile examples of this was a proposed electrification and upgrade of ‘GOBLIN’, the Gospel Oak-Barking line in London, which was left out of the HLOS.

Commenting on the scale of the investment, Oldham said: “Obviously there’s always going to be more that could be done, depending on where you live.

“But what I think is good news is that it is actually across the country: the Midlands, the north, Wales, the East Coast. That it’s linked them all together is really good.”

Integrated vision

Oldham commented that from this latest announcement, it seemed as if the Government is doing “the right sort of thing”, but warned that rail must be integrated with other modes of transport, and called for further clarity on funding for the massive investment was necessary.

Will passengers bear the brunt of the cost? Or will it be more spread out with public subsidy? This is one of the Institution’s concerns, she said.

“They’re talking about a lot of investment, but they haven’t said how they are going to pay for it.”

A funding solution could be achieved from a larger, integrated transport vision, she added, where the Government can identify cost savings throughout the work.

“The Government has got to make sure it’s an integrated vision.

“There are also issues with linking to the other modes of transport; good rail access to our airports, buses, car parking spaces at our railway stations, to end up with that integrated network.”


And this wasn’t just a requirement from Government, Oldham said, but something that would involve a ‘step-change’ in society’s attitude towards travel.

“People need to start thinking about their mobility and how they’re moving, to make sure they’re not always looking for just one solution. They might have to get a train then walk or get a train and a bus rather than stay in their cars. It’s the whole low-carbon agenda; getting people to think about the way they’re travelling and the mode they’re using.

“It’s an education of society; we’re all so used to having the freedom of mobility, with our cars, that we can just jump into and get anywhere we want to at any time.”

She explained that this is where increasing capacity on the rail network must “make public transport more intelligent so people can look at it as a viable option”.

This includes knowing exact times for arrival and departure, what other forms of transport can be used at different points on a journey and alternative routes in case of disruption.


Oldham described one of the main issues with rail as reaching the capacity limit on the existing network. The new investment will be used to increase capacity, which is “great news for rail passengers and freight”.

This demonstrated a surprisingly positive approach to the longer-term vision for the rail network, she suggested, with suppliers able to work with their own supply chains and organise jobs and apprenticeships accordingly, for example, as they will know what projects they will be working on.

While this is all good news, she warned that investment, collaboration and training must be sustained to be successful.

Oldham said: “One of the issues we’ve had with previous upgrades is a stop-start approach; bits have been upgraded and then that has stopped, and that means you don’t have that continuous flow of work, which means apprenticeships and skills and training of different people on the jobs doesn’t happen. In today’s situation, with skills shortages, that’s a key area.”

A two-way street

Another issue with new projects is ensuring the right skills are highlighted for investment and train operating companies must work with organisations such as NSARE to help provide people with the right qualifications.

Once skills are secured for certain big projects, they must be supported through the industry to start work on other projects and remain within the country.

“It’s important to make sure there is that transfer of skills across large infrastructure projects. For example, Crossrail is developing tunnelling expertise, with a lot of apprentices going through that programme at the moment. Those sorts of skills will need to be transferred to, say, HS2 when that’s put into action, so the skills are carried forward and we keep them in the UK,” she said.

The industry itself also has a responsibility in creating and maintaining skills, Oldham highlighted: “It’s very much a two-way thing. I think a lot of people point a finger at government and say ‘they’re not doing enough’; but it’s also got to be through things like NSARE, working with both industry and government to see the areas that need investment in particular skills.

“It needs [the] industry to say we’re looking for particular jobs, for example skills in electrification: to make sure they’re getting the apprentices and graduates trained, with the right skills.”

Engaging apprentices

As a way to make the industry more appealing to recent graduates, the Institution launched the Railway Challenge this year to encourage interest in a career on the railway (there is full coverage and photos from the day on page 42- 43).

Oldham said: “What really surprised us was the amount of other apprentices who have heard about the scheme through the grapevine and are saying they want to be involved and engaged in this next year.

“Things like that, working with academia and apprentices, is how we can make railway engineering sexy.”

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