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Overhauling the UK’s rail infrastructure: a platform for jobs growth?

From the highly controversial High Speed 2 (HS2) to the eagerly awaited Thameslink programme, the UK’s rail infrastructure is undergoing its most radical overhaul since the retirement of steam engines in the 1950s.   

The significance of these developments was underlined by Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport (a title almost as long as the 118km Crossrail route), Claire Perry MP last June, when she announced that the Government was investing an eye-watering £70billion into improving the nation’s railways.

Perry also declared that Great Britain was on the threshold of a “rail renaissance”, later adding that rail infrastructure professionals were set to flourish working within a sector that was “in growth”.

Such positive proclamations mean that it’s not only frustrated British commuters that are set to benefit from such large-scale upgrades. With four high-profile programmes underway – the aforementioned HS2 and Thameslink, plus Crossrail and Great Western Electrification – there are a potential 110,000 employment opportunities up for grabs over the next two decades.

With exciting times ahead for those working in the rail sector, we’ve taken a closer look at each scheme and summarised the opportunities that lay ahead for the UK’s engineers, architects, electricians and construction workers, not to mention those apprentices and students wanting to get their career on the right track.

Thameslink – a £6 billion government-sponsored programme – will transform travel from north to south London. Works, which began in 2009, are focussed around the hubs of Farringdon, Blackfriars, London Bridge and Borough and include platform lengthening, station remodelling, provision of additional rolling stock and greater integration with London Underground.

With over 2,000 jobs set to be created during the project’s nine-year tenure, Thameslink has already placed a heavy focus on championing young talent and will be providing up to 60 apprenticeships across the lifespan of the project, which will account for three per cent of full-time construction jobs. Already in place are 38 individuals who are embarking on the formal apprenticeship scheme which covers a range of roles from signalling, telecoms, track maintenance, procurement and construction.

Thameslink is also committed to increasing the number of women in engineering and has been a staunch supporter of National Women in Engineering Day which was established in 2014. Whilst statistics show that only nine per cent of UK engineering professionals are women, Thameslink is proud to buck this trend, with 15 per cent (13 out of 87) of those working on the scheme being female.

Crossrail­ ­­– Europe’s largest construction project – will transform rail transport in the London and the south east by connecting Reading in the west, to Shenfield in Essex. The new high-frequency, high-capacity service will link 40 stations between the two, over 100km of new track via 21km of twin-bore tunnels under central London and the Docklands area. It aims to bring an additional 1.5 million people within 45 minutes commuting distance of London’s key business districts and will increase central London rail capacity by around 10 per cent.

Almost 90 million working hours have been completed on Crossrail so far and there are currently over 10,000 people working across 40 construction sites, whilst projections claim that a whopping 55,000 jobs will be created overall. Happily, more than 95 per cent of construction and engineering contracts have been awarded to British companies and 61 per cent of these are based outside of the M25. 

The sheer scale of Crossrail’s undertaking requires highly skilled workers hence the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) has been established to train construction workers and engineers with specialist tunnelling skills. In addition to the appointment of 400 apprentices, Europe’s largest construction project is working hard to challenge perceptions about women in engineering and construction. Earlier this month, the aptly-titled “Women delivering Crossrail” event took place at the House of Commons, championed by Claire Perry MP, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and Crossrail Chairman Terry Morgan. It highlighted the fact that 30 per cent of the 10,000 Crossrail workers are women and promoted the “Young Crossrail” programme which has reached 36,000 school pupils and teachers. A raft of female ambassadors have visited schools and colleges to promote careers in engineering, construction and railway infrastructure.

High Speed 2 (HS2) – perhaps the most controversial and high-profile of all schemes – is the planned high-speed railway which will link London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. The line is to be built in a “Y” configuration in two phases, with construction on the first phase set to begin in 2017, reach Birmingham by 2026, Crewe by 2027 and be completed in 2033.

The project, which is being developed by High Speed Two (HS2), a company limited by guarantee and established by the UK government, is set to create 22,000 posts in the next five years and an estimated 100,000 in total. With a rare 20-year construction window, HS2 is set to offer genuine career-defining opportunities for many. An 18-year-old apprentice beginning their career in 2017, would be a highly experienced 34-year-old by the time the scheme completes, ready to re-enter the jobs market with a wealth of skills and knowledge. Such unheard of longevity was recently underlined by Transport Minister, Lord Ahmad, who commented that HS2 will create jobs “as part of our long-term economic plan”.

Great Western Electrification – as its name suggests – will electrify the current railway which runs between Bristol and London. Having its first update since the Victorian period, the modernisation will enable cleaner, quieter and more reliable electric trains. The project, which began in 2010, is expected to take around eight years at a cost of £1.4billion.

Patrick Hallgate, the man responsible for leading the scheme, has gone on record to state that the electrification of some key tunnels has been a “head scratching challenge”. The introduction of the fabled High Output System (HOPS), also known as a “factory on wheels” means that Amey Plc, the company tasked with its completion, is required to ensure that there are enough skilled people to provide two train teams capable of delivering six night-shifts per week. Project Director, Neil Johnson, is the man in charge of recruiting and developing more than 150 staff for the project and for many recruits, the comprehensive training programme will take them as far as Rheine and Bad Bentheim in Germany, where the HOPS was first developed.

In the face of such unprecedented and radical development programme and with a plethora of opportunities available to junior, mid and senior level rail sector protagonists, it’s hard not to agree with Claire Perry and her declaration of a new era for the industry. Long may the rail renaissance last.

By Neil Wilkie, Head of Procurement, Marketing and Services at Fusion People – a specialist rail recruitment company with genuine global reach. 

For a further summary on the UK’s rail infrastructure visit Fusion People’s useful visual summary here.

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