Some of the rail projects being carried out today are utterly staggering in their scale. As in many ways, it is the tiger economies of India and China which are leading unparalleled investment. Between 2006 and 2010, China will have invested $200bn in its rail system – four times the investment made in the previous five years. Meanwhile, India's five-year economic plan up to 2012 calls for $500bn of investment to upgrade its infrastructure, including railways.

But developed economies are also spending heavily and, unlike China and India, are now facing a serious workforce shortage. In July 2007, the UK Government announced plans to create a "bigger, stronger" railway, carrying twice as many passengers by 2030 as it does today. Billions of pounds worth of investment is now set to flow into the sector.

Investing in people

The sheer scale of the projects taking place around the globe is creating enormous demand for skilled staff. There is currently a global shortage of engineers, which could threaten the viability of some schemes.

In the UK, the lack of engineers has been a problem for some time. In 2004, Network Rail, which owns and operates Britain's rail infrastructure, was forced to fly in 12 mechanical engineers from India to ensure that the £15bn West Coast Mainline upgrade was completed on time.

The situation is set to worsen as the workforce gets older, demand increases and new technology develops. To address the shortfall, the rail entrepreneur and pop music impresario Pete Waterman recently called for the establishment of an employer-led National Railway Skills Academy (NRSA). Waterman owns London & North Western Railway (LNWR), Britain's largest domestically owned provider of maintenance for railway rolling stock.

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“There are only about 700 skilled people in the UK able to work permanently with the kind of skills needed to work with 20,000V on overhead cables.”

"We need people who understand everything about railways, from ballast and embankments to overhead catenary and computing," Waterman has said. Based at Crewe, LNWR has reintroduced five-year apprenticeships. Waterman says that Network Rail is interested in joining LNWR in establishing an academy.

He has stated publicly the extent of the skills deficit. There are only about 700 skilled people in the country able to work permanently with the kind of skills needed to work with 20,000V on overhead cables.

A spokesperson for Crossrail, which is involved in a £29bn project to build new rail routes across London, said: "The skills shortage is one of the most serious challenges that Crossrail faces and if not managed sensibly it could cause major delay and cost overruns to the project. Crossrail is committed to working with government and industry to address this shortfall in engineering skills."

The spokesperson added that the supply of skilled labour is becoming "increasingly constrained" as several key infrastructure projects, such as the Olympics, Crossrail and Thameslink, will be completed or commenced in London and the South East over the next five years.

"At the peak of construction in 2013–15 some 14,000 jobs, involving over 40 trades and professions, will be needed to build Crossrail. Demand for specific engineering skills will ramp up and down as the project reaches various stages of completion. Crossrail will need major resources such as civil and structural engineers, including tunnelling, rolling-stock and power engineers. Work on the London Underground upgrades will also require premises engineers."

Crossrail also said that falling numbers of graduates and apprenticeships and an ageing workforce are adding to the pressure on the industry. According to their figures, the average age of an engineer in the UK is 56. Alarmingly, Crossrail says that 50% of engineering graduates leaving university in the UK do not work in the rail profession.

“At the peak of construction in 2013–15 some 14,000 jobs, involving over 40 trades and professions, will be needed to build Crossrail.”

Tina Bailey, Human Resources Director, says that Crossrail is committed to working with government and industry to address this shortfall in engineering skills: "We are working with the various authorities, other employer organisations and the industry to establish a Tunnelling Academy offering training and recognised qualifications," she explains. "In addition to the Tunnelling Academy, Crossrail is working with professional institutions, including the Institute of Civil Engineers, ConstructionSkills and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board, to ensure that appropriate training is in place for the whole workforce."

Global deficit

Other developed economies face similar problems to the UK. A study for the Australasian Railway Association, published by the Australian analysts Infohrm in June 2008, warned that acute labour shortages are likely to hit Australia's rail industry hard, with 40% of the current rail workforce to be replaced within the next five years as staff retire. The most acute shortages of railway engineers are in signalling and communications, rolling stock, and track and structures. There are also shortages in train control, data handling and on-board electronics, noise and vibration, overhead-line design and logistics.

The US is also reportedly suffering from a chronic shortage of railway engineers. The country's National Engineers Union says that some railroad operators are asking their staff to work six days a week because of the drought.

The US railroad industry is leading the world in the application of emerging technologies to improve communications and safety. However, competition from other industries, particularly the energy sector, is hampering its ability to retain engineers who are trained in the use of these new technologies.

“The shortage of engineers is complicated by the fact that rail transport is experiencing a technological revolution.”

Continental European countries such as Germany are better placed to deal with the global shortage of engineers. Railway engineering programmes that include a focus on emerging technologies are common at German technical universities. Students who pass these programmes join different parts of the industry, such as railway infrastructure and train-operating companies, the signalling industry, railway consultants or railway engineering companies.

Even so, there is still a shortage of qualified locomotive engineers in Germany. Many have found higher-paying jobs in Switzerland, Austria and Luxembourg.

Dawn of a new technological era

The shortage of engineers is complicated by the fact that rail transport is experiencing a technological revolution. If the NRSA does go ahead, the training programmes it runs need to place an increasing emphasis on emerging technologies, such as digital communications, IT and GPS.

Railway engineers will also need to be trained, for example, in the use of ultrasonic technology to detect the defects in tracks that cause derailments. The NRSA will have to produce engineers who can maintain and operate the Ethernet technologies that are being applied to signalling and communications and to multimedia equipment in trains, as well as those who are comfortable with new propulsion systems.

Even if governments and companies step up their training programmes immediately, the lack of skilled staff cannot be solved quickly. Due to health and safety issues, workers in the railway industry are required to undergo long periods of training or apprenticeships before becoming qualified.