As investment in signalling systems ramps up around the world, the long feared shortage of signalling engineers is now starting to bite, according to highly placed industry insiders. Many of the existing engineers are approaching retirement, and although signalling companies are recruiting heavily and investing in training schemes, there are some territories – the UK and North America to name but two – where the biggest constraint on signalling projects isn’t now financial but human.
The biggest problem is that developing the expertise to become a signalling engineer takes a long time: you can’t simply take, for example, a mechanical engineer and expect him or her to become familiar with the safety critical minutiae of systems as varied as European Rail Traffic Management, Positive Train Control and Communications Based Train Control in two weeks. It takes time – and that doesn’t help get desperately needed staff on the ground on ongoing projects.
In the short term the global signalling companies are seeking to redeploy staff from markets which aren’t growing so rapidly, but not all staff want to work very long distances from their homes and families. At best it is an imperfect solution. The long term solution, of course, is to invest heavily in graduate recruitment and training in local markets – but from a signalling company’s point of view, what happens if that market suddenly dries up? The investment is wasted.
Such is the importance of ensuring there are sufficient signalling engineers that it must now be the time for a pan-industry effort involving manufacturers, track authorities, trainbuilders and industry bodies to work together and present an attractive case for graduates to join the rail industry. Then it is vital that when they are fully trained there is enough work for them to base a career on.
It will not be easy to achieve this – but it is becoming more and more critical every day that as an industry we do.