Rail plant operators call for action to address economic uncertainty

rail plant sector, economic uncertainty

The Rail Plant Association (RPA) has urged the government and Network Rail to come up with solutions to benefit the rail plant sector

The ‘The UK rail plant industry in 2019 – coming off the tracks? paper aims to address concerns relating to the economic uncertainty of the rail plant sector.

It states: “Rail plant is at the heart of maintaining the rail infrastructure in the UK, yet there are doubts around its long-term viability due to the economic uncertainty for those companies operating this specialist equipment. 

“The rail plant industry is an essential part of the wider rail infrastructure network. Despite pledges by government to spend more money on transport infrastructure, and an ongoing programme of rail maintenance work, rail plant operators face uncertain times. The cyclical nature of the industry places strain on resources and operators and damage to overall capacity.”

Research carried out by the RPA suggests its members are working at 70% of workload capacity compared to recent levels during the week, and at 60% of recent levels at weekends.

The paper suggests workload levels have fallen to a point where irreparable damage to the rail maintenance supply chain may take many years to repair. Despite ongoing maintenance programmes and upgrade proposals to existing rail infrastructure, concerns remain around fluctuations in workload.

Rail plant sector concerns

Research by the Rail Industry Association (RIA) mirrors the concerns of the RPA paper. A survey they carried out in 2018 revealed that 61% have frozen recruitment, 45% decided against investment and 96% believe more must be done to address the inconsistency in the industry.

The rail plant sector paper outlines the impact on rail plant operators. It can take two years for a plant operator from a traditional construction background to learn the skills needed to operate a road rail excavator. That cost and experience is lost once they leave the industry – especially as the financial incentives are currently higher in civil engineering and construction.

As a result of the downturn, companies are losing highly trained operational staff to more secure employment opportunities in other sectors.

Companies also lack the confidence needed to invest in new equipment and the ability to turn research and development programmes into technologies.

Action is needed to address these problems through a collaborative approach with the government and Network Rail.

RPA members are calling for action across the following areas:

A Williams review for the rail infrastructure industry

Develop a Williams style review that looks at the rail infrastructure industry, concentrating on efficiency, work patterns and the commissioning process. It should consider where the industry is failing, and why, and provide practical solutions.

Industry and stakeholder led working group that meets regularly with the government

The industry and stakeholders must come together and lead a working group that builds on the recommendations outlined in the rail infrastructure review. There must be work with the Department of Transport and the Treasury in outlining the challenges and solutions in the industry.

Industry to be supported so it can be more proactive and innovative in maintaining core skills being lost

Resources should be pooled and transferrable skills assessed. The rail plant sector should work with the wider plant-hire industry in advertising job roles for training and development. The forthcoming Construction Plant-hire Association (CPA) Skills Strategy will include RPA members in setting its agenda and development.

A culture change is needed to overcome issues within the compliance model with suppliers given greater freedom in meeting outcomes

Regulation and compliance are vital to the safe operation and maintenance of a system as complex as the rail network. However, companies are forced to follow an inflexible, rules-based culture of compliance that does not allow for innovation, is inefficient and adds costs and delays to work. This culture of inflexibility is having an adverse impact on rail plant operators and is adding to the economic uncertainty.


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