Are there the required skills to capitalise on the digital rail industry?


Rail is one of the few sectors currently enjoying sustainable growth. Experts predict that it will see 2.6% growth year on year until at least 2020, with the market expected to be worth €180 billion by this point.

Distributed equally across trains, signalling, network infrastructure and services, the growing traction across Europe and particularly the Asia Pacific region is being driven by increasing demand for passenger rail services and the need to revitalise the freight sector.

The campaign to offer a more user-centric experience, coupled with the need to reduce the carbon footprint and improve operational efficiencies, is encouraging the industry to adopt new technologies and processes. The outcome of which would be to optimise design, manufacturing and more importantly, rail operations.

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However, the chronic skills shortage is hindering rail’s ability to capitalise on these technologies and the next five to ten years will be critical in delivering a flow of talent to manage railway innovation and capability as the market continues to grow.

Making rail digital-first

The increased investment in infrastructure being made by governments is driving much of the innovation in the industry. Given rail’s reputation as an energy and cost efficient form of transportation, it’s no surprise that so many are choosing to plough resource into making improvements to their networks.

Indeed, the demand for more services is on the rise, particularly where overcrowding is an issue in cities like TokyoBeijingMumbai and London.

The electrification of railways allows for faster, greener and more reliable services, enabling new trains to be added to lines at a low cost and minimal disruption to services. The fuel costs of a diesel train are 47p per mile, compared to almost half the amount (26p) for electric trains.

If this is coupled this with usage of concepts such as smart propulsion and regenerative braking, among others, the gains will be further compounded. The lowered footprint and savings in energy costs means that there are few reasons not to roll out further electrification of lines across a country’s railway services.

As the sector looks to improve the experience and reliability of services however, we must go further than electrification.

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The first wave of widespread digital investment was seen in 3D design and manufacturing to produce components and products such as grab rails and door control systems, followed by drones to maintain railway tracks and mandated vehicles.

Now businesses are testing and trying technologies such as driverless trains, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) and machine learning.

For example, VR engineering has already been used in the field of product design by engineers at Balfour Beatty Rail for planning and prototyping. And the technology behind autonomous vehicles – IoT and machine learning – are said to be making their way into rail, bringing the possibility of connected mobility to life.

Upskilling the industry to avoid de-railing progress

Despite this wave of innovative new technologies, the rail industry is struggling to bring them into full effect due to a significant skills shortage.

This challenge beckons a more globalised supply-chain approach by respective governments to enable relevant skills, technologies and materials to be made more readily available. Crucially, there is a need to build up talent in niche skill sets for the development or renewal of rail infrastructure projects.

This need could be met through initiatives such as tailored training programmes and increased activity amongst consortia and academia to bring more graduates and new talent into the industry.

This is already happening in Morocco where a joint venture between Moroccan National Railways (ONCF) and French National Railways (SNCF) has seen dedicated training provided to employees to build and operate a modern railway; a high-speed line between Casablanca and Tangiers, opening in 2018.

With thousands of training days already completed, it demonstrates the importance of tailored programmes in a constantly modernising sector. It also reduces risk when executing projects because project workers are fully trained on what they need to do and how to manage the technology.

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While we see this approach happening in isolated pockets within the ecosystem, it is evident that there is still a long way to go.

Picking up the pace, along with liberalising the supply chain, is essential. This has been demonstrated in the past by industry sectors such as automotive, aerospace and medical technology.

In Germany, apprenticeship programmes offered by the likes of automotive company, Daimler AG, have helped the country’s car industry bring young people into the industry more effectively. There is scope for the railway industry to adopt best practices from the successes that these industries have already had.

On track for innovation  

The global rail industry is aiming for rapid transformation and the speed at which it can make change is heavily dependent on both the technology to deliver the experience and the skills to manage and capitalise on it.

The investment in graduate programmes and sponsoring school initiatives to attract new talent is essential to build a sustainable talent pool. However, the scale and speed of the projects across the globe will also warrant a seamless resource and knowledge-sharing of skill bases around the world.

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Technology is having a profound impact on driving service efficiency, user experience and automation and subsequently, new talent must be introduced right across the industry to better manage this revolution.

Indeed, growing government investment is a huge opportunity, demonstrating how far the industry still has to go, thus defining areas of attention required across the rail community.


Sourced by Viswanath Machiraju, account director and strategy lead for Transportation Business at Cyient


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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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