As the railway continues to evolve and change to meet increasing demands on capacity, efficiency and reliability, the industry must meet the challenge of developing skills and capability to match. Increasing automation with signalling control systems is often seen as the solution to deliver these benefits; however it has many implications for the people and companies involved with the implementation, operation and maintenance of new systems.

This was the theme of a recent seminar, organised jointly between the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers and Institution of Railway Operators. Rail Engineer went along to hear leading experts explore some of the challenges the industry faces and make proposals for how the industry can develop the skills and capability needed. Looking to the future, what is required to attract exciting young engineers and operators to develop their skills and experience in order to continue to improve the railway system?

The changing demands of the railway are to create greater capacity at a lower unit cost. A step change in capability will be required to meet this demand and to transform a network that was designed in the distant past. To deliver this challenge will require new ways of providing engineering. The UK rail industry is fragmented with many stakeholders so greater collaboration will be required to face the challenges going forward – a point made by many of the speakers throughout the day.

Opportunities and impact of automation

Christian Fry, business development manager of GE Transportation Systems, discussed automated design and testing. Christian explained the innovation within GE to develop and build new capabilities within its organisation in order to deliver the next generation of control systems.

Railways are not unique in having complexity. Other industries face similar issues around accelerated life cycles, increased levels of innovation, requirements for safety and safety assurance, spiralling cost of development, cyber security, and long term product support for bespoke systems. So what can be learned from those other sectors?

Industries such as automotive, aerospace, nuclear and banking (with similar challenges to rail) are turning to commercial-off-the- shelf (COTS) model-based design, automated testing, and formal proof.

Model-based design supports collaborative engineering and reduces the impact of change, while making it easier to assess, manage and implement. The process  starts with a textual specification similar to traditional design, but produces an executional specification modelled in a common engineering language. Engineers can use the models to discuss and clarify requirements with the users, operators and stakeholders, and to obtain feedback right at the start of the design process. This review takes place before any detailed coding or implementation commences, followed by automatic production of documentation, then validation and testing of the code to remove errors early in the life cycle of a project.

Formal proof is a method of assuring that safety is satisfied using an automated mathematical-based assurance. The traditional way of removing errors in design and coding is in layers of assurance checking and testing. Unfortunately this can lead to the ‘Swiss cheese effect’ with the holes in each layer lining up, causing data errors and a defect to be allowed through undetected into the final product. This problem becomes greater as systems become more complex.

For a signal engineer, these tools will allow earlier engagement and discussion with operators, segregating the hardware from  software development and resulting in a more efficient and safer process. It also means that signal engineers can focus on the value-added skill of signalling principles and operational requirements and spend less time on finding coding errors and defects.

John Doyle, general manager of London Underground’s Jubilee line, followed with a presentation on his experience of automatic operations. Like all railways, LU is under pressure to provide more capacity. Automatic train operation (ATO) provides an opportunity to create additional capacity using the existing infrastructure. ATO is already used on the Victoria line with reliable operation of 34 trains per hour. Similar increases happened on the Jubilee line going up from the current 30 to 36 trains per hour.

ATO has also increased regularity and reliability with less human involvement and error. There are also benefits in energy consumption, improving quality of service, better customer information and improved regulation, so further expansion of ATO is planned for other routes. Main line application of ATO is more limited but it will be found on the core section of Thameslink and the central operational section of Crossrail, both from 2018, with planned headways of 24 trains per hour.

Simulators are vital for maintaining competence but, most importantly, cooperative working between all stakeholders was stressed as the key to success.

Minding the gap: addressing the skills shortage

The next part of the seminar focused on the skills required for the future, how to best use the people we have, and how to attract and develop new people.

Steve Collicot from the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) presented the scale of the signalling engineer skill shortage.

In 2013, NSARE undertook an analysis of the signalling skills available with a forecast of the requirement for the next five years. The first alarming figure to stand out was that only 4% of the railway engineering workforce is female. 90% of the signalling workforce was covered and it was estimated that industry requires several thousands of additional engineers over the next five years. Other countries are also rolling out ERTMS and this will draw on the resources required for UK rail.

Collaborative working was again mentioned, along with the opportunities for graduates and trainees to have learning placements with other companies. The industry needs system engineers, but how do we get well-rounded system engineers if the trainee engineers can’t see and experience the whole system?

With an element of signalling control moving to the train, ERTMS will require a different skill set and job roles. In order to prepare the industry for the change, the National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR) is being established in Northampton to fill the gap and provide other training requirements. The National College for High Speed Rail will be based in Birmingham, with an additional site in Doncaster, and it will provide both specialist vocational training to the next generation of engineers and vital skill training for the industry.

Andy Stringer, head of engineering at Siemens Rail Automation, presented a very entertaining and thought provoking session (and without power point!) on making better use of the resource we have. He made the point that Siemens had already dramatically increased its training and recruitment and that its mentoring and training resources are full to capacity. Therefore it is a case of making better use of the existing competent engineers.

As an example, Andy focused on a hypothetical signalling scheme taking one year, costing £10 million and requiring 10 designers. Two designers are required for the interlocking, two for trackside design, two for stage works, two for fringe working, and two for ancillary works such as the control centre design or level crossings. Currently, for any such typical scheme, another two designers may be required throughout the scheme for changes and rework.

The first lesson to learn is that projects should not be allowed to commence until the scheme plan has been signed off. While some change is inevitable, rework and change must be avoided as they are wasteful. At a cost of £70,000, two additional designers may only cost £140,000 on top of a £10 million scheme. This may be considered acceptable; however the important point is that it means that the fifth typical signalling scheme costing £10 million will have no signalling design resource at all.

Precious resources

Looking to the future, automation will save some design resource but this was cautioned as, when compared to other countries, the UK can have many more types of routes to specify within the data. ETCS and automation may save some signalling design resource as they remove lineside signals, but there will still be a need for routes, flank protection, points, opposing locking and power, all of which will need specifying. In the hypothetical 10-designer scheme, Andy estimated ETCS as saving half a person.

Rail Engineer

Some of the layout functionality currently specified on schemes can be overcomplicated and the challenge for all operators and asset managers is to consider whether all the complicated functionality, which requires design and testing, is required. Interestingly, compared to track circuits, axle counters require less design resource with regards to data preparation. Fringe design can be very complicated due to the historical location chosen for the fringe location and there may be a saving in design resource by taking this into consideration.

Level crossings are another area where design resource can be saved. An example was given of an automatic half barrier crossing located within the strike in of an obstacle detector level crossing. This makes the controls very complicated with extensive design and testing resources required and, in some cases, 90% of the design resource is spent on 10% of the crossings in a project. While it is not possible to remove all level crossings, taking the design resource required into account (as well as the risk of not delivering another £10 million scheme) may provide the business case to build a bridge, remove the complexity and result in a safer and more cost effective railway.

Andy finished his presentation by giving everyone the challenge to say what they will be doing differently in future to free up design and testing resource. The other point made was that the whole rail community needs to work together collaboratively and take an industry view of the best way to make use of the resources available.

Adam Stead, chairman of the Young Rail Professionals, discussed how the rail industry should attract and develop the best people. Adam opened by making the point that the majority of young people now considering the rail  industry were born after 1994, so have little concept of British Rail!

The industry already manages to attract some of the best people available. However, the challenge is still to make rail more interesting to the best students and convince them that rail is a modern and an interesting place to work. Companies need to go out and attract the best people and inspire confidence by developing and selling the rail brand, making it stand out against the competition. Everyone needs to inspire the next generation and to develop the talents required by empowering and giving freedom to explore and innovate.

The journey to competence

Phil Davis, director of technical learning and development at Atkins, opened the afternoon’s programme with a discussion on beyond personal competence. He focused on how companies and organisations need to demonstrate and manage their corporate competence in addition to personal competency. This needs to cover sustainability, which means making sure the skills and competency are there for the future. Career paths, skill banks, feedback loops and databases of lessons learned were all identified as components of corporate competence.

Piers Conner discussed operational and operator readiness. The amount of time and resource required to train operators on new systems should never be underestimated and again it was stressed that operators need to be involved right from the concept stage of new projects and systems. Making sure all of the new system is finished and in place, and works, with everyone trained and assessed as competent, is vital to gain the confidence of the operators.

Any new control system needs a fall back strategy in place for when it fails. This can be either another entirely-separate backup control system or reliance on the rule book and procedures to get trains moving, such as ticket working and verbal instruction. The latter is preferable as transition between the main and standby system is complex and expensive, and not having a standby system will focus everyone to make sure the main system works correctly and has duplication of critical elements.

Francis How, Railway Industry Association (RIA) technical director, completed the competency session by discussing safety implications. Both Network Rail and London Underground have significant resource requirements which will need managing and implementing safely. Francis outlined the various initiatives in place to improve the management of safety in design and testing as a result of incidents which have included data errors. A working group has been set up, involving Network Rail, RIA, IRSE and signalling suppliers, to look at the issue of signalling design and safety. The working group has already made a number of short- term recommendations and has just produced a guide to managing signalling projects safely which focuses on “what does good look like?”

Skills for the future

George Clark, engineering director of London Underground, led a session to look at which engineering skills will be needed for the future. In the past, skills were at a simpler level (both mechanical and electrical) than are required to design and maintain the systems of today and tomorrow. Verification and validation methodologies will be remote and virtual and allow the assessment of both the logical and physical railway. This will have a huge impact on the skills necessary to maintain these systems and in the future we will need complex system investigators rather than today’s ‘sequential checkers’.

The engineers of the future will need to be technically literate in current and legacy software system functionality. Examples of the skills needed will include: systems engineers, cyber security interrogators, simulation validators, logical railway map designers, data investigators, system performance engineers and ‘predict and prevent’ technicians.

John Alexander, principal engineer at Network Rail, discussed scheme plan production for ETCS and demonstrated that a new method was required. The traditional way of producing scheme plans is to draw a scale base and place items to scale, but this can make plans too cluttered for ETCS and it’s difficult to change scale boundaries.

Looking at the fundamental reasons why scheme plans are required, both from an operational, engineering and stakeholder perspective, John suggested a new way of working was needed in the future for ETCS. He envisaged a freeform start by sketching out the layout on a white board, flip chart or paper. Key items of equipment, dimensions and areas of operational interest should be marked on the plan, followed by production of a base diagram with the ‘scales’ suitable for the amount of information that needs to be recorded. John went on to suggest interactive ways of displaying scheme plans with layers of information and demonstrated different ways of formatting scheme plans in an ETCS world.

The message was to be open to exploring new ways and to be prepared to make mistakes. It will be important to work with the customers of the scheme plan to help them understand what the railway will deliver and to dare to be different!

Synergy and simulation

Tim Gray, sales and marketing director of TRE, discussed the capability and benefits of modelling and simulation for signalling design. It was explained that such tools were used in other sectors and more vigorously than rail. Simulation will bring many benefits. There is synergy with other industry initiatives and it enhances the existing Network Rail GRIP process.

Having demonstrated some examples where modelling and simulation can be used throughout the project life cycle for rail, Tim concluded that modelling and simulation can provide improved efficiency of the design process, better specification, faster testing, less rework, less live railway access, reduced cost and programme duration and enhanced safety. He also suggested that early adoption will give early benefits.

Finally, Francis How concluded an interesting day, and a glimpse of the future, by saying that the seminar had achieved its objectives. There had been several common themes such as the need to be more efficient, reducing and eliminating rework. simplifying design rules, collaborative working, embracing technology and methods from other industries – such as automatic design and testing and simulation, and introducing new ways of thinking and working.

This will not work without the right people, so organisations must ensure that they have the right skills for the new technology by attracting, developing, inspiring and retaining talented individuals from schools into the modern apprenticeship schemes, and from universities and other industries into the rail industry.