WSP hosted a series of discussions in 2017 exploring the successful delivery of the digital railway, Technical Director of WSP, Steve Denniss summarises what was discussed
The white paper (produced jointly with the IRSE), ‘Making a success of the Digital Railway’, presents the, sometimes discordant, views of Government, regulator, infrastructure manager, operators and suppliers, exploring how we can create a digital future for rail. So, what are the real barriers?
It became clear early on in our discussions that the primary barriers to a digital railway are not technological – the suppliers around the table were unequivocally confident they could produce the goods, whatever they might need to be. No, the real barrier can be distilled down to one word: skills.
The existing workforce would need to be endowed with new skills to implement, operate and maintain the digital railway.
This was a view endorsed by David Waboso, Digital Railway Programme Director, who, at the launch of the white paper said that ‘the training of engineers needs to change’, and that it was ‘vital’ that institutions analysed the competence of their membership and how these competencies need to change. Few commentators would disagree that the entire industry should work together to achieve the necessary skills jump, drawing on the thoughts of academia, institutions and the suppliers, including the integrators, operators and maintainers.
Collaboration shouldn’t end there. Beyond the workforce, the rail industry needs to reach out to the many stakeholder groups who have a part to play, or are themselves users of, the railway. This large group should include the communities that rely on transport to thrive, and the passengers who bear the brunt of delays and cancellations. Greater engagement will help the industry to understand what will be required of the railway as a future transport mode. WSP’s recent success in the Rail Partnership Awards’ ‘Putting Passengers First’ category shows what’s possible, with passengers at two major stations clearly benefitting from our user-centric focus.
Through inspiring young people, first to use the railway and then to be part of its success, we can capture the imaginations of future generations that want to build a better railway. This capturing the ‘hearts and minds’ approach is important, and perfectly viable; on World Youth Skills day, Network Rail’s David Rowe found through his schools’ workshop that young people are more than capable of harnessing new technology to benefit rail travel.
I heartily agree with David that ‘bringing new technology to the railway will be most successful with the support and inclusion of all parts of society’.
Achieving the necessary transformation demands a long-term outlook, from government and industry alike. Without a commitment from the policy makers to invest in and support the training of skilled people, we won’t be able to resource the activities –
automated design, software development, data management and wireless communications – that will create, operate and maintain a digital railway. While the £64 million earmarked by Government last Autumn is a welcome cash injection, and a reassuring sign of intent, every pound needs to count. This requires a plan.
The skills shortage has been a hot topic in the rail industry for several years, stoked by a general fear that industry lacks people with the right expertise to deliver necessary software, communications system, data or digital technology expertise. And this lack of certainty extends to whether the expertise required to deliver today’s concept of a digital railway will be significantly different from the technological requirements of tomorrow.
Gauging future workforce and training requirements would be a lot easier and more certain if there is a fixed plan for delivering a digital future – without a clear requirement we can’t compare available resources.
A pairing of people and machine
Our round table debates revealed confidence from suppliers that they already have the resources to develop a digital railway. However, slow progress of the Digital Railway Programme (DRP) means they are understandably cautious about investing in the future workforce until there is a credible programme of work and real confidence that it will proceed to time.
Suppliers also face the challenge of not knowing what mix of expertise will be required, and how rapidly this will change with time. For example, how greatly will traditional signal engineering expertise support DRP projects?
The indication is that if suppliers are given contracts with the right scope and timeframe they will make the necessary long-term investment in people. From a business-opportunity perspective, Gary Cooper, Director of Planning Engineering and Operation at the Rail Delivery Group, said at the launch event: ‘If we embrace this opportunity we can give the supply chain confidence to grow its people, and their expertise, and even export beyond UK PLC.’
WSP offers a good case study for investing in skills from a more diverse and gender balanced pool, last year’s apprentice intake increased by 43 per cent (with a 150 per cent increase in female apprentices), earning recognition at this year’s Rail Partnership Awards.
There is no magic bullet, only through ongoing efforts to attract and retain people throughout their career journey, as they transition from college or university, to early career professionals and experienced specialists, can we reap the rewards that Cooper believes are possible.
Developing the core skills
Clearly, our industry has a skills shortage (i.e. not enough people) exacerbated by a skills gap (i.e. those people we do have lack expertise for delivering the digital railway). Critically, though, industry needs to understand that skills come in many forms. Sure, they include the more obvious technical skills, but personal skills are also crucial, helping the collective ‘us’ to challenge the status quo in our standards-bound rail environment. Mostly, the railway needs visionaries to provide strong leadership.
The Digital Railway Industry People Strategy is a big step in the right direction. Providing a road map and principles to engage with, inspire and train a workforce fit for the future railway needs.
Then there is the Digital Railway Centre of Excellence, (part of the UK Railway Research and Innovation Network – UKRRIN and centred on the University of Birmingham), an impressive example of how strategy is being put in place. It has the potential to become a powerhouse of digital technology development activity for railways, with strong industry collaboration and input, and it could facilitate the growth of expertise to support the DRP.
Also, the National College for High Speed Rail is certainly developing future skills, supported by companies, including WSP, to provide expert, practical training and curriculum development drawn from senior experts working on leading-edge projects like HS2.
Personally, I am optimistic that we can build the skilled workforce that will deliver the future railway. The students I was privileged to speak with and observe – as part of the National Training Academy for Rail (a joint project between the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Department for Transport (DfT), with industry partner Siemens) – were switched on to new technology and not short on ideas that will benefit and challenge our rail industry.
Facing the future: the key to success
Our round table was unanimous in its belief that the industry is facing big change, and that it will need to adjust accordingly. Encouragingly, this view is shared by NSAR, which specialises in talent planning and the development of training standards and plans, stating: ‘The industry is set to go through a major period of change in the coming years requiring a transition of skills from those needed for today’s railway to those for the future railway. Managing this transition process is a key task for NSAR.’
It is vital that qualifications in rail through MSc courses are tailored to the overall strategy so that our future pool of talent are aligned with what they will need to deliver. Universities must step up and work closely with the industry to deliver these skills, so we can develop a better railway.
In general, the industry must collaborate among itself and with academia to identify the skills required, plan for the transition to train and support the people who ultimately will be delivering and operating the future railway.
Neil Franklin, the Head of Skills Intelligence at NSAR, sums up this need for collaboration perfectly: ‘On something as complex and challenging as the DRP, if there is no effective collaboration, you won’t find an effective set of solutions. It’s critical to enable success. The way the WSP Round Tables brought people from all parts of the industry together is an example of how seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome.’
In the light of the success of the first set of round table sessions WSP has commenced a further programme focusing on the people and operational issues. Collaboration is the key, working together we can deliver success.
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