Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Andy Knight, Managing Director of Signet Solutions about his experiences as a Signalling Engineer, the skills gap in the rail industry and how Signet Solutions hopes to rectify this
You became Managing Director of Signet Solutions in 2003, and have a near 40-year career as a Signalling Engineer – how did the first half of your career inform your work at Signet Solutions?
I had a very traditional route into the Signal Engineering department (called the Signal & Telegraph at my starting point). This allowed me to complete four years of training and placement in the various disciplines in the department whilst also attending a recognised college course in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. This continued throughout my career, and I was lucky enough to be part of an organisation at the time (British Rail) where I was able to experience a wide range of disciplines and was involved in the installation, testing and maintenance of signalling equipment throughout my early career and ultimately became a fault control supervisor before moving into the training area.
Latterly I was leading a maintenance and faulting team in the Manchester Piccadilly area, and this team seemed to become where trainee and graduates would be sent to have an initial introduction to the trackside equipment element of the job.
I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and it allowed me to pass on my knowledge and understanding to other people and I felt very satisfied once this has been completed. I still speak to some of those people today and we often share happy memories of our time together and thankfully these people are in senior roles within the Signal Engineering field.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen during that time?
I think without a doubt the change of the organisation as it changed from a nationalised industry to a private led organisation was one of the biggest challenges that the industry faced. This impacted every facet of the industry and the ability to communicate and manage projects and perform maintenance was challenged. It also led to challenges in the way we managed and controlled competence and it took the industry some time to assess this and bring in control measures to assure quality.
The rules around the safety and management of projects have seen huge changes and I think we are about to see more challenges as we recover from the pandemic and transition to Great British Railways. As always, we have faced a challenge to justify the renewal and expense surrounding new technology and the implementation of the digital railway and we still face a huge task in persuading the government and the public that we should invest in the industry. In my career this has never gone away and in reality, this is an ongoing challenge for our industry.
What are some of the challenges you believe the training sector will face in the coming years? How do they compare to the challenges of the past?
I think we have had to adapt to the pandemic and implement changes to the way we train people, which is steadily easing, and we are returning to some form of normality. However, as in many other industries we have developed approaches to training that do take advantage of the technology that is available and, in some cases, we have achieved great progress. The main challenge to training is a constant in some respect in the context that we all want to achieve safety within our industry, and this means that we need competent people. Training assists in this process and I think how we ensure that this is done properly, and everybody understands the need for it, and the associated costs, will make us a better industry for the future. We must learn the lessons associated with knowledge fade and loss of skill as people retire and ensure that we plan training for the longer term and resist the temptation to do it for the short-term and react to incidents when arguably, it is too late.
Signet Solutions are specialists in the delivery of railway signalling courses and training programmes to members of the Rail Signalling Industry. What type of training courses do you offer?
We offer a full selection of courses that cover the individual disciplines within Signalling Engineering. This includes Design, Installation, Testing and Maintenance. Some of these courses are part of our standard portfolio and provide a recognised development path for each of the disciplines. However, we can align the courses to the needs of the clients, and we work closely with some clients and produce training for new systems.
Tell me about your facilities, what sort of equipment will trainees be able to get their hands on?
The facilities have been built to suit the wide range of typical trackside equipment that delegates would find in the workplace. We have also built a selection of control systems within the centre (Solid State Interlocking and Relay Based Interlocking) as well as helping clients with control systems on their own sites.
We effectively provide a full trackside installation that simulates the trackside environment and allows delegates to work on equipment in a safe and internal location so we are not affected by the weather with the exception of a fully working mechanical external installation.
What sort of practical experience will trainees come away with?
The individual delegates can experience all the practical elements of a role and they are recommended in most cases to carry on their mentorship process in the workplace. This supports the overall competence management system within the client’s organisation.
What are the biggest skills gaps you’ve seen clients struggling with the most?
I think in the industry today due to pressure on projects and the inability to allow people to experience the industry over a reasonable timescale, people can sometimes lack sufficient workplace experience. This makes the training challenging and needs some form of programme to ensure that people are supported in the workplace in line with the training to re-enforce the underpinning knowledge and practical experience already gained in the training environment.
How would you define the ‘intelligent railway’?
This has become a buzzword in the industry and its about us getting better at linking the various systems that can provide information and grasp the opportunities going forward. As an example, we can use sensors and cameras to assess the conditions of the infrastructure. This can lead to reduced faults due to maintenance being carried our when needed and because we can assess the information remotely it leads to a safety benefit i.e., staff having to be on the trackside is reduced. This is only an example, but the opportunities are quite wide ranging and exciting, if we can manage and understand the data that we collect.
How can we best utilise the data being generated by the signalling systems on the railway network?
If you look at other countries that are perhaps more advanced in their approach to data, we are seeing the creation of data management departments. These department will become highly skilled in interpreting the data and deciding how we use to our best advantage. If we can assess the data in an ‘intelligent’ manner and link some of our systems we could improve safety and performance as well as improving how we design systems in the future.