Rail Industry Focus


A ‘significant shortfall of people’: signal engineering demand to outstrip supply in CP5

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Apr/May 2014

NSARE recently completed a major study into the UK’s signal engineering resources and requirements for 2014-19, commissioned by Network Rail. RTM spoke to NSARE’s head of training and skills, Elaine Clark.

Network Rail’s programme director for signalling, Mark Southwell, took a great interest in work done by NSARE (the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering) on skills forecasting, published early last year. That project showed a significant ‘gap’ between the number of rail engineers available and the scale of works in the pipeline.

He asked NSARE to dig deeper, and commissioned a specific study – on behalf of the industry – into signal engineering resources specifically.

The results of the study were presented at a well-attended seminar on 27 March at the British Library.

The headline finding is that the industry will potentially be more than 2,000 signal engineers short of requirements in 2016-17, one of the years where the ‘gap’ is at its peak. In reality workloads will be ‘smoothed’ to try to account for this, and improved ways of working will be developed, but NSARE says that even so, “we should still anticipate a significant shortfall of people when we take into account replacing at least some of those who will retire, who will take a huge amount of experience with them”.

The study

NSARE’s head of training and skills Elaine Clark (pictured above) explained that this study went into more detail than the previous industry-wide skills forecasting project (RTM interviewed NSARE’s Gil Howarth about that work in our Feb/March 2013 edition).

She said: “Instead of looking at two or three skill levels, we looked at 30-plus specific job roles linked to the IRSE licensing categories. When getting data from different companies, we needed to ensure we were ‘comparing apples with apples’, and those categories were the ideal way to do that.”

The study updated NSARE’s database of upcoming projects in the light of the ORR’s determination for CP5, and revealed an aggregated project workbank for CP5 that amounts to some £5.9bn. Of this, 75% relates to Network Rail, and the rest to TfL, Crossrail, light rail and initial HS2 works. This is larger than the previous estimate, partly because it includes a more thorough analysis of the signal engineering elements of other projects.

NSARE says that based on data returns, the estimated signal engineering workforce is 9,200, of whom just over half work in projects and renewals. Only 4% are aged over 60, and the overall age profile is less of a concern than in other parts of the industry – especially traction and rolling stock.

The peaks and troughs in the workbank – a notorious problem for the rail industry – are a bigger issue, and one which Network Rail and other major client organisations have been trying to address across all engineering disciplines.

Another is that the proportion of recruitment needed at higher skill levels – technicians and professional engineers – is higher than previously thought, now being closer to 50% than 30%.

Clark said: “That is a particular challenge for the industry, because recruiting several hundred – up to 1,000, maybe – technicians and engineers over the next five years is not an easy challenge. It’s probably impossible. So, in the immediate term, people with experience from other industries will need to be brought in and trained up quite quickly. We can’t generate people from scratch in these timescales. CP5 has already started and the challenges of delivering it are upon us.”

Practical improvements

Alongside the quantitative analysis, the project also looked at qualitative issues. These included the ‘international dimension’ (the oft-stated theory that the gap stems from good UK engineers moving abroad), the scale and quality of graduate and apprenticeship schemes for signal engineers, business processes, training courses, and the IRSE licensing scheme itself.

The international dimension proved something of a damp squib for those who blame the lure of Australia and the Far East for the lack of UK signal engineers: the evidence suggests that the net effect is minimal, as international workers also come to the UK seeking work, and international companies try to use their global talent pools in the most efficient ways.

Clark said: “My key message to the industry on this is that while it’s not a major contributor to the ‘gap’, based on our analysis, we do have to recognise that we live in a global marketplace. Talent will move – both ways. As an industry, we need to take advantage of that two-way street, not just bemoan the fact that people sometimes leave the UK.”

New blood

NSARE approached the 40 or so companies who provide signal engineering resources in the UK, most of whom engaged with the study. About half had an apprenticeship scheme, though only a few took on more than one or two people a year. Coupled with Network Rail, which takes on 50-60 maintenance-focused signal engineering apprentices a year, the total number roughly balances the number of people retiring – but it doesn’t allow for the growth that’s coming over the next few years.

Graduate numbers are harder to quantify, because they are often not specific to signal engineering when they first enter the industry, but instead work across electrical engineering roles more generally. But the best estimate is that there about 140 a year joining the railway.

Business processes was a key issue for many of the companies and engineers interviewed and surveyed by NSARE. Many of them are concerned at the high level of re-work at projects’ design stage, up to 30%. That figure is consistent with feedback received by RIA, the Railway Industry Association, representing the supply chain.

Clark said: “That’s a huge amount of wasted effort, which is costing money and effectively taking designers away from other work. There can also be a lack of visibility of upcoming work, which would allow for more detailed planning. We need to improve business processes as an industry to eliminate some of that.”

Training courses vary in quality and content, and are less standardised than many employers assume. There is no nationally accepted set of standards, and accreditation is currently voluntary. The study steering group is to consider whether formally accrediting training provision for signal engineering through NSARE’s established processes is the best way forward.

Finally, the IRSE licensing scheme has “served the industry well for the last 20 years”, Clark said – but it is high time to examine how it can best serve the industry for the next 20 years. The industry likes the scheme’s rigour and independence, but as roles change, it is widely felt it could do with being more flexible.

Clark said: “The industry is especially looking to get more flexibility across designer-testers, and some other categories, so people aren’t having to re-do the same assessments and the same knowledge blocks several times. This doesn’t mean making it easier – it means making it more flexible. There is also a desire to streamline some assessment processes, and incorporate more consistency.”

The IRSE has set up a working group to look at these good practical proposals to take them forward. Clark said the IRSE has been an “integral member” of the steering group, and chief executive Colin Porter spoke at the seminar.


The industry has welcomed the study, which will be presented in its final form to Network Rail by the summer, and its key findings are expected to be shared more widely after that.

Rather than coming as a big shock, the findings mostly seem to quantify and clarify what companies and clients already knew or expected. But they are grateful that there now exists a sophisticated model for signal engineering resource forecasting and monitoring, which can be refined as time goes on.

Mark Southwell himself spoke at the seminar day on 27 March, and stayed for the full day to answer questions, of which there were many.

He told RTM later: “This is a hugely important piece of work which will help the rail industry understand the demand for signalling resource across the network and how it can supply and manage that resource.

“The industry now has a good baseline of data which needs to be maintained so we
can monitor the situation and take action where appropriate. We recognise this is a challenge for the entire industry and we need to work together in a cohesive group to deliver the most benefit.

“It’s clear we must attract new people into the industry through conversion courses and apprenticeships in order to increase the supply of signalling expertise. There are already many good examples of Network Rail and suppliers doing exactly this, but we need to ensure we develop this capability further.”

There was a follow-up steering group meeting on 24 April to decide how to take the recommendations forward. RTM will report on progress in future editions.

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


S Moore   22/06/2014 at 10:07

I thought about applying for a job in the signal design sector of the rail industry, my qualifications are... I work for BT and have responsibility for a radio station, a telephone exchange and an external copper and fibre network, out of interest I once designed, constructed and programmed a number of small microprocessor electronic circuits to control a set of signals on a model railway, and I have a basic understanding of signalling principles in a railway related environment, so I might be the sort of person you’re looking for, however my problem is three fold, 1. I don't have an IRSE license 2. No companies want to train anyone anymore, instead they all want off the shelf, hit the ground running employees. 3. And even though it is illegal to deny someone a job on the grounds of their age, I have discovered that hitting the magical 50 suddenly makes you unemployable. I agree with the main argument of this article, there is a wealth of experience and skill in other industry's that the rail industry is not tapping into because of a lack of flexibility with its approach to recruitment. At a guess, I would imagine the HR depts are the culprits as they have no understanding of anything other than box ticking.

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