In the days of British Rail, there was always dependence on the private sector to design, supply and install systems and equipment needed for the introduction of new technology as part of various modernisation initiatives.
This was as true for the signalling discipline as for any of the other engineering functions within the rail industry. Names like Westinghouse, SGE and General Signal were part of the signalling partnership, with their staff and resources working hand in hand with BR in-house designers to deliver the new signalling systems. Many of these firms engaged with smaller contractors for the supply of subcomponents and piece parts, thus creating a hierarchy in the supply chain.
The coming of privatisation changed this natural order and many new SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) have entered the signalling fraternity. Why has this happened?
Firstly, the in-house Network Rail new-works signalling resource has been drastically reduced from that of BR and is now predominantly engaged in specifying and accepting signalling systems.
Secondly, the big signalling organisations have become global companies selling products that satisfy the international market with decreasing interest in supplying bespoke equipment for a limited local requirement.
Thirdly, many of the signal engineers made redundant by the downsizing of engineering and management numbers have either been recruited into or indeed created small companies that fill the niche elements in the signalling supply business. These SMEs have mushroomed in recent years. TICS is one of them, which Rail Engineer visited recently to learn how this part of the supply chain operates.
The TICS (Testing Installation Correlation Services) brand was created in 1998 by Les May, a long time BR signal engineer and tester who found himself in an ever-changing market of consolidation with his employer seemingly changing names every 12 months.
Starting as a ‘one man band’, he foresaw that the industry was going to urgently need skilled testing staff as signalling schemes were authorised and implemented through new and different procurement channels. Recruiting some erstwhile colleagues in a similar situation, a plea for help with the works testing of the new signalling centre at Guildford was his initial assignment.
This quickly led to other things and a small team of staff soon developed. A relationship was formed with Lionverge (a similar sized company specialising in installation) and Tarmac Construction (Centrac) which was winning significant contracts for switch and crossing renewal. This enabled the testing expertise and size of TICS to expand.
The TPWS (Train Protection & Warning System) implementation programme of the early 2000s was running behind schedule because of a shortage of works testing resources, so Jarvis engaged TICS for testing work in the LNE area. The demands of this contract were considerable and thus further recruitment and growth was the natural result.
It became clear that it was not just works testing where skilled staff were needed, signalling design being another area of shortage. Thus TICS established a signalling design office, headed up by Steve Armitage as director of signalling design, to undertake discrete packages and thus complement the existing testing activity
Now, 17 years on, TICS (Global) Ltd has grown to some 70 permanent staff. 43 are engaged in works testing and 16 in design. In addition, there is a small group of four installation supervisors and team leaders with the remaining staff providing support in sales, commercial, finance, HR, IT, project management and administration.
The head office is in Robin Hood Airport Business Park near Doncaster, with a joint design and testing office in York and a further outpost in Peterborough. An installation depot has recently opened at Escrick (between Selby and York) where offsite construction and testing of trackside location cases and relocatable equipment rooms (REBs) can be undertaken in a safer environment. The company currently has a turnover of around £8 million, which is achieved with minimum flow through.
Work and contract relationships
To be a successful SME in the current rail structure, a company needs to put in place mutually-beneficial relationships. Accredited Link-up approval was in place for TICS in 2003. TICS (Global) holds the same accreditation today, this being essential to maintain the company’s competence and systems of operation.
Becoming established with the bigger players in signalling is necessary and, with the framework contract for new signalling projects being awarded to the big three companies – Siemens, SSL and Atkins, knowing what their strengths and weaknesses are is part of the process. Both design and testing work has peaks and troughs so it is convenient for large companies to use trusted providers as a means of managing the workflow. TICS has such relationships in place and these work very well.
The big civils contractors take on major projects which include signalling alterations and additions as part of the package. There is generally no in-house expertise for this element and thus TICS and others are engaged to carry out the necessary signalling work. Companies such as BAM, Buckingham, Murphy, AMCO, Morgan Sindall VolkerFitzpatrick and Spencer Rail have all employed TICS to undertake signalling design, install and test work on their behalf.
Work partnerships with other businesses established in the post-privatisation era are a natural consequence and TICS has a number of these in place in which different skill sets complement each other. AmeySersa, Colas (the two current S&C framework providers), Babcock Rail, Linbrooke and Kier are companies where the works testing resource needed to verify the installation work is not always available in house.
Co-ordinating the works testing activities and resource pool can be a challenge and Steve Brookes, director of testing, works closely with Symon Hall, the programme engineering manager (T&C) at Network Rail, who facilitates a working group that requires all the participating companies to meet bi-monthly and look at the ongoing testing demand during the CP5 and CP6 periods. This is very productive and allows the bigger picture to be understood by all, so enabling companies to plan and co-ordinate collaboratively in order to optimise output of an industry critical resource.
Projects to date
TICS has built up its expertise and reputation by successfully delivering its contractual commitments with signalling project delivery being headed up by Pete Coleman, the company’s director of operations. Its first forays into testing included the remote relay room at Brightside for the Sheffield re-signalling project and the signalling associated with the new carriage sidings at Bedford Cauldwell.
Many more projects have been undertaken since those early days, some with total design, install and test responsibility. These latter include the Doncaster North Chord, Ilford Depot expansion and associated signalling and the Killingholme turnback facility.
‘Bread and butter’ work remains signalling works design and testing projects and these recently include Selby swing bridge, Tyne Dock, Winsford, North Yorkshire, Cambridge CD/RA, Bromsgrove, Low Moor, Brierfield and Huncoat.
A significant contract won directly from Network Rail is to test and commission the upgrade of 10 AOCL+B (automatic open crossings, locally monitored, with barriers) level crossings.
The 10-year national programme for switch and crossing renewals always involves signalling changes and, as part of this, TICS has a relationship with both Colas and Amey-Sersa for the associated signalling design and works testing. Currently, TICS has testing resources deployed on the Balcombe resignalling project in the Brighton area as part of Three Bridges ROC introduction and at Hereford where a major signalling scheme is underway.
In addition, and outside the Network Rail arena, TICS is working with Associated British Ports (ABP) and Graham Construction at Killingholme – carrying out signalling design, install, test and commissioning activities on the remodelling of the sidings as the port expands its operations.
Nor is TICS (Global) work confined to the UK. A contract in NW Australia in connection with the double tracking of a freight railway near to Port Hedland led to 17 staff being deployed there for testing responsibilities. Some apparently enjoyed it so much they decided to stay, but this is all part of the competitive pressures for recruiting experienced signal engineers worldwide. Other testing work overseas has included the Oporto (Portugal) and Athens Metros.
Like many others, TICS has grown from a small to medium size company and this brings new and more demanding responsibilities such as ensuring all staff have the correct technical credentials. For design, installation and testing engineers, the qualification needed is an IRSE licence. All TICS engineers hold suitable categories, and this not only has to be worked for in the first place but kept up to date through five and ten year reviews.
As companies grow, they should accept the need to recruit and train new staff, especially school leavers. TICS is proud that it has taken on eight apprentices who are busy learning the intricacies of the signalling profession as well as studying for a Level 3 Diploma in electrical/ electronic engineering and NVQ Level 2 in performing engineering operations. Doing ‘real’ work as part of this training all adds to both the satisfaction and usefulness of the trainees.
As with all organisations in the signalling business, the introduction of new technology is outstripping the supply of engineers and technicians to both design and maintain the ensuing systems. TICS is well aware that it has to learn the intricacies of ETCS, CBTC, new level crossing techniques, radio transmission and other emerging technologies. This will not be easy and it will mean investment in training, test equipment and worldwide familiarisation visits if the appropriate skill sets are to be obtained for the company to adapt.
So, is small beautiful? Certainly, a niche market has evolved for small signalling companies which can capitalise on the expertise of the ‘grey haired’ brigade who, for whatever reasons, left the mainstream rail industry in the post- privatisation era but who wish to continue using their hard gained knowledge for the benefit of the profession.
Most companies of this type have succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams, but the workforce is ageing and many employees will have to face retirement before too long. The more enlightened companies will recognise this and plan for recruiting new staff to cover the technician, engineer and management roles. TICS can already boast having 25% of staff who did not previously work in the rail industry. Career progression is recognised as important, resulting in a very low staff turnover. The company ticks all the relevant boxes and must be wished well with its endeavours.
First published in Rail Engineer March 2015 – Issue 125