Talent and the Underground: stimulating the UK economy

The Underground is upping its game to make sure it has the staff it needs in the decades ahead. David Waboso discusses new skills, secondments and diversity.

London Underground has faced, and will continue to face, enormous challenges in the decades ahead. We are delivering one of the world’s largest programmes of transport capital investment. This is spearheading economic development and growth across the country. 

"With further modernisations planned into the 2030s, we need the workforce to deliver these projects for decades to come."

We've recently invested in our training facilities and we’re seeing similar trends across the country. For example, I recently had the pleasure of opening the fantastic new training facility at Newcastle College Rail Academy, which will help train the next generation of apprentices who can become the leaders of tomorrow. Encouraging more young people to choose a career in rail is crucial if we are to maintain our status as a pioneer in the transport industry..

Railways are one of the most effective sectors at stimulating economic activity. According to the Office for National Statistics, for every £1 invested railway transport returns £2.23! With greater connectivity from transport, people’s opportunities expand, their incomes rise and business prospers.

Understanding the Opportunity

London Underground’s supply chain extends far beyond London: we work with suppliers from Cornwall to Scotland. This drives investment and jobs nationally and contributes to the growth of local economies.

Over 54 per cent of all UK rail journeys are directly provided by London’s Rail & Underground (R&U), meaning we not only support travel around London but also connections across the country. 43,000 UK jobs are currently supported by R&U’s supply chain; 68 per cent of which are outside London. Nearly half of these jobs are related to the R&U investment programme.

However, the widely publicised shortage of young people choosing to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects at university and college means we need to up our game in terms of attracting new recruits.

Opportunities for all

We’re aware that future engineering talent is in short supply. With 55 being the current average age of an engineer in the UK, we need to look ahead to fill a skills gap that will occur in the next 5 – 10 years. Solutions to address the problem are already well underway and training centres are being established to address regional and national skills gaps in industry. This is a fantastic opportunity for those who want to develop their talent and pursue a fulfilling, challenging career.

The increasing move to digital technology also means we need a re-skilled workforce, and must invest in training our existing staff as rail technologies like Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) and the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) become standard. Building Information Modelling (BIM) and the digital revolution in information management are further examples of this change. Everyone, including our customers, is using technology in their personal lives, so we are pushing at an open door with the connectivity of our travel and ticket information to smartphones and the like.

"With 55 being the current average age of an engineer in the UK, we need to look ahead to fill a skills gap that will occur in the next 5 – 10 years."

We are developing a strategy to encourage more women and ethnic minorities to study engineering. Our recent Innovation Expo, which also featured at this year’s MetroRail Conference, enabled us to demonstrate our diversity and inclusivity. We are working with schools, training colleges and universities to showcase the numerous opportunities a career in engineering can offer, from shaping ground-breaking major projects such as the Victoria Station Upgrade to identifying and developing new technology.

We are constantly looking to recruit the best and the brightest by expanding the number of apprentices and graduates we have working for us. This runs alongside encouraging our existing employees to achieve their potential. Nurturing talented individuals will enrich our organisation and provide the vital skills we need to make the most of new technology and encourage new, more efficient working practices.

Talent is also being developed by seconding and rotating engineering and project professionals within different organisations and industries. Our trainee engineers are routinely offered secondment opportunities with Crossrail and we are developing secondments with other big players in the industry. Through relationships we have with sister metros around the world, opportunities are even available further abroad, for those willing to look for them.

World class training facilities

LU is investing in the equipment and infrastructure its apprentices use while learning the trade to ensure they have the skills they will need to keep London moving. Late last year we unveiled £1million of improvements to our training centres in Acton and Stratford. This will continue to support future generations of transport workers. 

These centres are home to LU Engineering apprentices and have been modernised with new equipment and first class facilities. Apprentices are trained in roles including Signalling, Rolling Stock and Track Engineering. 

Challenging projects

We have announced our plans to modernise four more Tube lines over the next seven years using similar CBTC digital technology that has revolutionised the Victoria, Jubilee and Northern lines with capacity increases of around 30 per cent. The Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines are set for similar radical improvements of the kind. They form the oldest and one of the most complex underground metro railways in the world and there are major engineering challenges to bring their aged signalling into the 21st century.

Customers are already seeing the benefits of a £5.54bn investment on these lines, with more than 100 of the 191 award-winning air-conditioned trains already in service. These trains, along with the new ones on the Victoria line are themselves wonders of modern engineering, using cutting edge diagnostics to advise of any problems and allow preventative action to be taken before the failures become service-affecting. These trains have all the digital signalling equipment mounted on them which greatly reduces the complexity of what's mounted on the track and along with the remote monitoring, results in a far more reliable and efficient railway. This technology also provides more accurate real-time information at every platform.

This investment is generating good, skilled jobs in London, Derby and across the country. With further modernisations planned into the 2030s, we need the workforce to deliver these projects for decades to come.

David Waboso is London Underground's capital programmes director