An interview with Simon Rennie
6 April 2017 • Author(s): Simon Rennie
As we move steadily towards the age of the ‘digital railway’, it is important that future generations have the training and skills needed to utilise the vast and varied aspects of future rail technology. By addressing this now we ensure that the UK can draw upon a highly-skilled talent pool in rail engineering – and create a truly world-leading 21st century rail network.
In this instalment of the European Railway Review’s Leadership Series, we speak to Simon Rennie, General Manager of the National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR), about the next generation of rail engineers and what he predicts for the future of digital rail…
What is NTAR?
NTAR is a unique project between the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), the former Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), the Department for Transport (DfT) and Siemens.
Its core mission is to develop and enhance traction and rolling stock skills through the application of innovation and partnering with market-leading organisations to deliver best in class toolsets, learning channels and content. It is part of an expanding network of railway colleges and is designed to support all rail businesses – both in the UK and internationally.
How important is specialist digital training for the rail sector?
To remain relevant and competitive, digital is coming and our sector needs to adapt quickly. Without skills there’s no deployment or transformation at any great scale.
To illustrate the extent of the skills challenge, if we take the traction and rolling stock working population as an example, of the 14,500 people who work in the sector, the National Skills Academy for Rail project that around a third of these will leave the industry in the next 5-10 years given their age profile and of those who remain, around half do not have adequate skills for future demand.
So specialist training, digital in particular, has a key role to play to ensure we have a workforce who can deliver demand in the near future.
How relevant is digitalisation in the rail sector?
Hugely so – we see digitalisation being key in three core areas:
- Firstly in the maintenance arena where predictive maintenance and on-board condition monitoring will transform how rolling stock is maintained, how the supply chain and inventory is managed and how inspections and maintenance are planned – all reliant on data and real-time digital telecommunications to improve reliability, reduce cost and enhance safety through the introduction of dynamic and smart models of working.
- Secondly through the introduction of digital signalling – specifically ETCS through Digital Railway’s programme – that will allow existing infrastructure to increase capacity and speed while maintaining the strong safety record of UK rail. Without this, rail won’t realistically remain competitive against other modes of transport in terms of continuing to attract long-term investment given other emerging and competing technologies.
- Thirdly, the passenger experience – covering passenger information, providing a more paperless experience, reducing dwell times and enhancing the onboard experience with fast and resilient connectivity.
What do you predict for the future of digitalisation in the rail sector?
I think we’re at a fork in the road – deliver digital at genuine pace and high quality and we can justify the kind of investment being made in the industry through increased capacity, reduced cost per passenger mile and a vastly improved user experience. If we fail to step up to the challenge, we can expect a slow death as we’ll look increasingly less attractive as an industry into which to make investment.
Digital in broader terms is a dynamic and fast-moving entity but rail has a chequered record when it comes to implementation. By way of example, GSRM-R implementation ran from 2007-2016 and is only projected to have a ten-year life span before it becomes unsupportable – going forward we can’t realistically adopt a model where programmes to implement technology are such that the technology is nearing obsolescence at the point of completing its roll out.
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