Memorandum by RITC Ltd (RI 08)
An item in Construction News on 1 June 2000
asked for contractors to "blow the whistle" on Railtrack's
performance in maintaining and renewing the country's rail network.
Whilst I would be surprised that contractor's responded to such
a request as Railtrack is their main client, RITC would like to
respond. Our response focuses on the impact the current method
of contracting has on the performance of the whole industry, especially
in relation to the lack of skilled engineers in the industry (and
nationally) and the lower levels of training being undertaken
Contracting as it is carried out within the
rail industry requires the involvement of more engineers in the
formulation of tenders and in the tendering process. The requirements
of tenders are becoming greater and usually there are several
contractors bidding for projects, which mean that the majority
of the work undertaken is abortive.
The management of the contracts is becoming
more onerous with greater requirements for documentation.
The nature of contracting as it is carried out
requires the involvement of more engineers in the management of
the work than previously required by the integrated rail industry.
Railtrack employ engineers who project manage Contractors who
employ engineers to carry out some of the work and project manage
subcontractors who carry out most of the work. All this layering
makes communication, planning and approval processes more complex
and necessitates the use of many more engineers checking each
other at a time when there is a national shortage of engineers
of all disciplines.
Railtrack have recognised this problem on some
contracts such as West Coast Mainline where there is an integration
of the Project Team and alliances have been formed, but this needs
to become more widespread. This reduces rather than removes the
An additional problem is that most contracts
are let as short-term contracts rarely lasting more than two or
three years. Therefore contractors are unable to predict their
future workload or type of work or resources required (especially
engineers). All this makes it more risky for Contractors to commit
to the investment in recruitment and training as it must be done
as an act of faith. Railtrack have in the past reduced some areas
of investment and cancelled projects, which has made contractors
more wary of committing to long term plans for training and development.
Overlaid with the national shortage of engineers across all industries,
and a sudden upturn in proposed investment in the rail infrastructure
has resulted in skills shortages in the industry. Again this has
begun to be addressed and next generation contracts should be
of longer duration.
In view of the way the work has fluctuated over
recent years contractors resources have been cut to a minimum
in times of dearth. It is impossible for contractors to match
increased resources at the speed of Railtrack's demand. Over the
next few years Railtrack's increased investment programme includes
such major projects as West Coast Mainline, Channel Tunnel Rail
Link, East Coast Main Line, Projects on Great Western routes plus
the usual track and signal renewals. Skilled people are already
in short supplyengineers, site supervisors, designers etc.
The industry needs to find ways of making best
use of the available skilled workforce and rapidly improve the
skills of others working in the sector.
There is also a problem in that most work is
required to be carried out at key periods ie weekends when track
possessions are available. Manpower requirements for these periods
are well in excess of those required during the normal working
week, therefore contractors are forced to rely on labour suppliers
and retain a core workforce only. Due to the fluctuating workloads
the demand for this additional labour is inconsistent so that
labour suppliers investment in training their staff is commercially
risky. This is compounded by the itinerant nature of the workforce.
Another impact of privatisation has been to
introduce competition where it is of least valuethe training
and development of the sector workforce.
It is generally believed that all of the above
issues add to the cost of the work being undertaken and do not
add value. However, more concerning is that they are adding to
the shortage of skilled labour at a time when Railtrack are looking
to expand its investment programme. Unless these issues are resolved
Railtrack will be impeded in delivering the infrastructure improvements
that the rail industry needs.
Railtrack has taken a number of actions to improve
the processes and is clearly intent on further improvement, but
it is also generally felt that more could be done and good practice
could be more widespread.