In a bid to address concerns relating to the economic uncertainty of the rail plant sector, the Rail Plant Association (RPA) has released a discussion paper entitled ‘The UK rail plant industry in 2019 – coming off the tracks?’ which calls for action from the government and Network Rail to come up with solutions to help secure the industry.
The paper states: “Rail plant is at the heart of maintaining the rail infrastructure in the UK – yet there are doubts around its long-term viability due to the economic uncertainty for those companies operating this specialist equipment.
“The rail plant industry is an essential part of the wider rail infrastructure network. Despite pledges by government to spend more money on transport infrastructure, and an ongoing programme of rail maintenance work, rail plant operators face uncertain times. The cyclical nature of the industry places strain on resources and operators and damage to overall capacity.”
Research carried out by the RPA suggests its members are working at 70% of workload capacity compared to recent levels during the week, and at just 60% of recent levels at weekends. The paper stresses that RPA members believe current workload levels have fallen to a point where irreparable damage to the rail maintenance supply chain may take many years to repair. Despite ongoing track maintenance programmes and upgrade proposals to existing rail infrastructure in the north, concerns remain around adverse fluctuations in workload.
Research by the Rail Industry Association (RIA) mirrors the concerns of RPA members. A survey carried out by the RIA in 2018 revealed that 61% have frozen recruitment, 45% decided against investment and 96% believe more must be done to address the peaks and troughs in the industry, as workloads vary hugely week by week with no foresight.
The paper outlines the impact on rail plant operators. When companies reduce headcount, it becomes much harder to reverse these changes when work returns. It can take two years for a plant operator from a traditional construction background to learn the skills needed to operate a road-rail excavator. That cost and experience are lost once they leave the industry – especially as the financial incentives are currently higher in civil engineering and construction.
As a result of the downturn, companies are losing highly trained operational frontline staff as they leave the industry for more secure employment into other sectors. Companies lack the confidence needed to invest in new machinery and equipment and to turn research and development (R&D) programmes into technologies.
Action is needed now to address the problems through a collaborative approach and government and Network Rail need to listen and work with the sector. RPA members are calling for action across the following areas:
· A Williams review for the rail infrastructure industry
Develop a Williams style review that looks at the rail infrastructure industry, concentrating on efficiency, work patterns and the commissioning process. It should consider where the industry is failing – and why – and provide workable, practical solutions that both the industry and the government buy into and commit to.
· Industry and stakeholder led working group that meets regularly with the government
The industry and stakeholders such as Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group must come together and working on equal terms, lead a working group that builds on the recommendations outlined in the proposed rail infrastructure review. There must be a clear remit and the working group must work with both the Department of Transport and the Treasury in outlining the challenges and solutions the industry needs.
· Industry to be supported so it can be more proactive and innovative in keeping and maintaining the core skills currently being lost
Resources should be pooled and transferrable skills assessed. Where possible, the rail sector should work with the wider plant-hire industry in advertising job roles and opportunities for further training and development. The forthcoming Construction Plant-hire Association (CPA) Skills Strategy will include RPA members in setting its agenda and development.
· A culture change is needed to overcome the inflexible, rules-based compliance model with suppliers given greater freedom in meeting outcomes
Regulation and compliance are vital to the safe operation and maintenance of a system as complex as the rail network, however companies are forced to follow an inflexible, rules-based culture of compliance that does not allow for innovation, is often inefficient and adds unnecessary cost and delay to work. An honest discussion is needed with Network Rail and the government in identifying where this culture of inflexibility around compliance is having an adverse impact on rail plant operators and is adding to the economic burden.
A full copy of the ‘The UK rail plant industry in 2019 – coming off the tracks?’ discussion paper can be downloaded from the CPA website at www.cpa.uk.net/rpa-policy-position-paper/