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Britain’s railways are experiencing a historic transformation.



September 2015 marked the start of a rail manufacturing renaissance in Britain. 

At this time Hitachi opened it £82m Newton Aycliffe factory. For the previous 10 years, there had only been one train builder in the UK: Bombardier in Derby.  

Today Bombardier has not only expanded but has been joined by Hitachi, assembling trains initially for the Intercity replacement programmes and now for two additional British contracts. In 2018, Spanish firm CAF is scheduled to open a new plant near Newport in South Wales. And Alstom has recently opened the country’s largest train modernisation facility in Widnes, Cheshire.
UK rail industry  
(Image via Bombardier)

The primary purpose of these factories will be to assemble the final products from components built all over the world. The location of these sites within the UK has also contributed to the growth of British companies in the rail supply chain that is also bringing investment. In 2014, for example, Siemens expanded its factory in Hebburn, Tyneside, to build components for the new Thameslink trains. And according to Hitachi 60 per cent of their parts for its UK-made trains come from British suppliers.
The growth in the industry is largely thanks to the government’s decision to start investing in Britain’s rail infrastructure.

Plans worth around £10bn for unprecedented numbers of new trains, to replace the ageing ones, have been announced. This is also strengthened by the Thameslink, Crossrail and High Speed 2 programmes to expand network capacity. It has been estimated that the HS2 project alone will create around 25,000 jobs during construction and 3,000 jobs when in operation. “Quite simply, the prospects for the industry are more exciting than they have been for generations,” said Baroness Susan Kramer, the former Minister of State for Transport.
UK rail industry

(Image via Crossrail)

All this investment is being driven by a growth in activity. Rail journeys have doubled in the past 20 years to around £3.2 billion a year and significant future growth in freight and passenger traffic is expected. Add to that historic low interest rates and it’s not surprising that international companies have become much more interested in building trains in the UK. Nearly half of more than 6,000 new carriages ordered so far are set to be made in Britain by 2021. 
“If you look at planned annual investment in the rail sector from all sources up to 2033, it rarely drops below £14bn a year and peaks above £16bn,” says Neil Robertson, Chief Executive of the National Skills Academy for Rail.

For Hitachi, this has meant the creation of around 1,000 different roles at its Newton Aycliffe site so far, including around 100 skilled engineering roles at any one time. “We’ve set out to build and maintain rolling stock, securing contracts that involve long-term service,” said Matt Watson, HR director at Hitachi Rail Europe.

In addition to train manufacturers there is a large number of other firms that are benefiting from rail’s resurgence. “We have a lot of small- and medium-sized companies that are particularly good in subsystems, electronic subsystems and asset management systems,” said David Clarke, Technical Director for the Rail Industry Association (RIA). “The nature of global supply chain means that many international companies create centres of excellence around certain capabilities.”

Because of this global supply chain, one of the most crucial engineering roles for many companies, especially the train carriage makers, is systems integration, which is said to be one of the most difficult areas to recruit in. It’s made all the more important by the fact that the UK has a patchwork of different rail lines, systems, signals and stations, and any new product has to be integrated with them, as well as with other new technologies as the railways go digital.
UK rail industry

(Image via Hitachi) 

The knock-on effect is that the industry needs both engineers with specialist rail experience but also systems engineers with similar skills to those in many other manufacturing sectors. “Everyone wants digital integration with physical systems now,” said Robertson. “Never before have advanced manufacturing jobs in rail looked so like other manufacturing jobs, with such a high proportion of competencies to do with digital.”

Software engineers are becoming vital in the industry, especially as new technologies come through, such as greater train automation, remote sensing and digital traffic management systems. “Software is really coming to the fore,” said Peter Loosely, the RIA’s policy director. “Like planes and cars, trains are now software-driven. There’s real growth in that area.”

Ben Dunlop, Atkins’ Director of Digital Railways, advises future rail engineers to look beyond what can be seen today, and consider the opportunities that an increasingly connected environment can offer engineering and operations in the railway sector. “Railways are complex systems that have engineering running through their core,” he said.

The rail sector is often seen as somewhat old fashioned, built around heavy engineering, which has contributed to its ageing workforce. It has been estimated by the RIA, that around 50,000 people across the rail industry will retire in the next 10 years. There looks to be a high demand for engineers in the rail sector for the next decade and beyond. #TEWeek17 

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Britain’s railways are experiencing a historic transformation. - Time to read 5 min
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