There is a skills shortage on the railways. It’s not news anymore. Writes Nigel Wordsworth
In fact, it’s not even surprising. But when one thinks of a skills shortage, one tends to think of areas in which a large amount of skilled people are needed and there simply aren’t enough of them to go around. Electrification, signalling – they all have their problems.
However, there is another crucial aspect of railway engineering which also has a skills shortage – approved on-track plant engineering acceptance signatories.
All on-track plant vehicles have to be certified that their “designs, construction and maintenance” comply with the railway industry standard, RIS-1530-PLT, issued by the RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board). Whilst this is not a mandatory standard, but an industry guidance document, it has been mandated by Network Rail for on-track plant that operates on its infrastructure. As such all on-track plant must have a valid certificate of engineering acceptance.
The definition of Certificate of Engineering Acceptance defined by RSSB states: ‘The declaration by a Railway Undertaking, or by a Notified body or a Competent Person employed or contracted by a Railway Undertaking that a rail vehicle(s) conforms to all of the relevant mandatory standards (including authorised non-compliances)’.
And that’s where the problem lies. While in theory there is plenty of capacity – the latest RSSB list of approved signatories includes nine companies and 70 people – most of them can’t sign off on-track plant.
In fact, looking at the category of engineering acceptance of on-track plant (to RIS-1530-PLT), there are only seven – and three of those work for Network Rail. So that is a definite skills shortage.
Small wonder then that Lloyd’s Register, the international specialists in safety engineering and assurance, became interested. On-track plant was a gap in its assurance portfolio, as it was in many other companies, so steps were taken to set up a specialist on-track plant approval unit.
Neil Hewitt was brought in to head up that department. In his 27 year career, Neil had spent time with AEA Technology, British Rail’s engineering development arm, and then with Network Rail and Jacobs. He had been responsible for several Vehicle Acceptance Body (VAB) projects, including the engineering acceptance of Kirow cranes, and the acceptance of many road-rail vehicles and various rail-mounted maintenance machines. He is also one of those seven signatories.
Supported by colleagues Steve Tidmarsh and Richard Grundy – a railway plant engineer with 40 years of industry experience – Neil is based at York. He explained the thinking behind the initiative: “There has been a shortage in the number of approved signatories available of late which has led to a sense within the industry that approvals services for on-track plant have been getting stretched. Coupled with this are the changes to approvals standards and the recent procurement programme initiated by Network Rail and other suppliers for new vehicles, which has meant there is a greater demand for approvals.”
Every new design of on-track plant needs to have a ‘first of class’ approval. This is very detailed and includes such elements as stability and braking performance. Of course, many road-rail machines are modifications of existing construction industry plant, but those very modifications may cause the problems. The machine may sit higher when on its rail wheels, affecting stability. And the ability to work under live wires, or adjacent line open, will certainly not have been assessed for normal building-site use.
Once that first-in-class assessment has been made and signed off, subsequent machines of the same design also need certifying but may not be checked to the same degree. Depending on the manufacturer/ converter, local in-house inspections may be accepted for some vehicles with either a spot check or a planned frequency inspection made (for example the first, third, sixth and ninth machines).
In every case, however, an approved signatory has to verify that the vehicle complies with the standards and provide certification – so if he is going to leave it to the manufacturer’s representative, Neil will have to be very sure of them.
“We don’t accept just anyone,” Neil commented. “They have to be approved by us in terms of competency and suitability.”
The latest version of RIS-1530-PLT, issue 4, requires that the vehicle has to comply with the standard and does not imply that the vehicle is safe in all respects. Of course, compliance should also bring about safety, but Neil stressed that he is not making a judgment-call on safety, but certifying that the vehicle meets the standard.
It also doesn’t mean that the machine is fit for purpose. Neil’s example was a rail grinder – he will certify that the lights all work and that it will stop when the brakes are applied, but he will have no comment to make on whether it grinds rails well, that’s not his job. Though he believes in time it will become so.
Out and about
Stability and brake testing can only really be done at a suitable test site, so Neil and his team are rarely in their offices. “Most manufacturers have a test rig in their premises,”
Richard Grundy stated. “Such test rigs can test a range of static conditions to meet the requirements of the standard. This can include wheel unloading characteristics and stability requirements.”
Network Rail’s test track at High Marnham, Nottinghamshire, has everything that a plant tester wants, so the team can spend quite a bit of time there. Switches & crossings, plain line, guard & check rails, 1:25 gradients severe track twist, high cant (200mm) and 80-metre (4-chain) reverse curves – it has it all.
Checking interlocks for adjacent line working can be problematic. “A couple of problems have arisen over the last 18 months, and the ORR (Office of Rail Regulation) is interested,” explained Richard Grundy. “Controlling the limits of movement of a machine used to be done with removable pins – a very positive solution. Now it is has moved to electronic systems with software control which now have strict standards applied for safety performance.”
However, with the growth of electronic aids such as the latest safe load indicator systems for vehicles capable of lifting, these have brought in improved safety for operators.
With all the new machines coming onto the railway every year, and the requirements for existing vehicles to be re-certified on certificate expiry, there is certainly plenty to do.
It looks as though Neil and his team won’t be in York very often.