Wiltshire is steeped in rail history; from the founding of the historic Westinghouse Railway Company, to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s iconic Western Arches railway viaduct in Chippenham and famous Box Tunnel.
Rail is vital to our county, not just for our travel, but the thousands of engineering and manufacturing jobs that rely on the industry’s supply chain. This is why I was pleased to welcome the Rail Minister, Paul Maynard, here last week.
On our trip along the TransWilts line from Westbury to Melksham we were able to discuss the re-opening of Corsham station, improvements to Melksham station and re-developing Chippenham station. I was also able to raise the fact that the Chippenham to London line is one of the most expensive in Europe and that a simpler, fairer system of ticketing needs to be brought in. We then visited Melksham based Knorr-Bremse, manufacturers of world leading train braking systems, to discuss the growing skills gap in engineering jobs in the rail industry.
There are a number of key challenges around the supply of skills in the rail sector, the main one being critical skills shortages in areas outside of the remit of civil engineering, particularly in signalling and electrification. These are vital Wiltshire industries with major companies such as Siemens and Knorr-Bremse significant global players and dozens more companies making up the supply chain.
Delivering huge numbers of engineering and technical workers requires a collaborative effort between government and industry. The pausing and un-pausing of projects – like the electrification of the Western Main Line – only exacerbates the difficulties that the rail sector faces in recruiting and investing in skills. I hope that events like my Wiltshire Festival of Engineering (save the date for Friday 3rd November!) can also help a little.
As with all industries, there is much more that needs to be done in order to ensure that the UK’s rail sector contains the over 8000 engineers that are needed to deliver major projects. In the UK, the lack of engineers has been a problem for years. In 2004, Network Rail, which owns and operates Britain’s rail infrastructure, was forced to fly in mechanical engineers from around the globe to ensure that the West Coast Mainline upgrade was completed on time.
The UK’s ongoing skills shortage has hardly been out of the news over the past couple of years, with many businesses unable to perform to the best of their ability due to the fact they cannot recruit staff with the expertise they need.
It is not just rail, it is all sectors, which is why I continue to press for improvements to our education system, better links between businesses and schools and improved career education. It is only via long-term, sustainable projects that we will close the anticipated gap in skills both now and well into the future.