Siemens to deliver "delay-busting digital technology" to UK rail freight fleet
Siemens has won a multi-million-pound contract to upgrade the UK’s fleet of freight trains to make them safer, make better use of the network, and provide greater flexibility with timetables.
Network Rail said the deal – which is part of an £450mn ‘digital railway programme’ – will see freight trains improved with “delay-busting digital technology”.
The initial phase is expected to lead on to become one of the world’s biggest ETCS retro-fit programmes; Siemens will install its Trainguard 200 ETCS on-board solution on freight locomotives which operate across Great Britain. Siemens’ Trainguard Level 2, Baseline 3 system will be installed to align with Network Rail’s proposals for deploying ETCS to the rail network.
The contract will see Siemens working with Network Rail and the six Freight Operating Companies (FOCs).
ETCS ensures trains always operate within safe limits and speeds, providing safe movement authority directly and continuously to the driver through a driver’s display.
The system permits the driver to operate the train, but should the ETCS distance or speed limit be exceeded, or be in danger of being exceeded, then the on-board equipment intervenes to control the train, bringing it to stand if necessary.
Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport said: “We are making the biggest investment in the railways since Victorian times and this includes £450m for integrating digital technology on our railways. This technology has huge potential to improve journeys for passengers and to boost our freight industry by cutting delays and increasing the number of services.”
The design, testing and approvals stage for each class of vehicle starts now and work to retrofit the entire freight fleet of 750 trains will begin in 2022 and continue through to Control Period 7 (CP7, 2024-2029).
Additionally, around 2,400 drivers will require additional training on how to use the new solution. Siemens and Network Rail will provide support to the FOCs during this time.
It’s expected the programme will involve more than 150 skilled engineering jobs across the UK, with the installation teams being based at the Holgate and Eastleigh depots.
Rob Morris, Managing Director of Siemens Rail Automation in the UK said: “We are delighted to be working closely with Network Rail and the Freight Operating Companies (FOCs) on this landmark digital railway project, which will ultimately be one of the largest ETCS on-board retrofit programmes in the UK.
“This solution will allow the freight operating companies to continue to safely deliver a reliable service as ETCS technology continues to be rolled-out across the UK.
“Having proven our equipment and delivery capabilities in a number of similar projects in Europe, our experienced teams are now looking forward to working collaboratively with Network Rail and the freight operating companies to deliver this digital railway project.”
Driver shortages: Why the industry needs to be worried
While driver shortages are a global problem, with a recent survey from the International Road Transport Union suggesting that driver shortages are expected to increase by 25% year-on-year across its 23 member countries, the issue has very much made itself felt for UK businesses in recent weeks.
A perfect storm of factors, which many within the industry have been wary of, and warning about, for months, have led to a situation wherein businesses are suddenly facing significant difficulties around transporting goods to shelves on time, as well as inflated operating costs for doing so.
What’s more, the public may also see price rises as a result due to demand outmatching supply for certain product lines, which in turn brings with it the risk of customer dissatisfaction and a hit to brand and stakeholder reputation. Given that this price inflation has been speculated to hit in October, when the extended grace period on Brexit customs checks comes to an end, the worst may be yet to come.
"Steps must be taken to make a career in the industry a more attractive proposition for younger drivers, which will require a joint effort from government, industry bodies, and the sector as a whole"
That said, we have already been hearing reports of service interruption due to lack of driver availability, meaning that volumes aren’t being transported, or delivered, to required schedules and lead times. A real-world example of this occurred on the weekend of 4-6 June with convenience retailer Nisa, with deliveries to Nisa outlets across the UK affected by driver shortages to its logistics provider DHL.
But where has this skills shortage stemmed from?
Supply is the primary issue. Specifically, the number of available EU drivers has decreased by up to 15,000 drivers due to Brexit alone, and this has been further exacerbated by drivers returning to their home country during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as changes to foreign exchange rates making UK a less desirable place to live and work. This, alongside the recent need to manage IR35 tax changes, has also led to significant inflation in driver and transport costs.
COVID-19 complications have also meant that there have been no HGV driver tests over the past year, meaning the expected 6,000-7,000 new drivers over the past year have not appeared. With the return of the hospitality sector we understand that this is a significant challenge with, for instance, order delivery lead times being extended.
It is little surprise, therefore, that the Road Haulage Association (RHA) earlier this month became the latest in a long line of industry spokespeople to write to the government about the driver shortage for trucks. The letter echoed the view held by much of the industry, that the cause of this issue is both multi-faceted and, at least in some aspects, long-standing.
So, many in the industry are in agreement as to the driving factors behind this crisis. But what can be done?
Simply enough, outside of businesses completely reorganising their supply chain network, external support is needed. In the short-term, the government should consider providing the industry with financial aid, and this can also be supported more widely with legislative change.
Specifically, immigration policy could be updated to place drivers on the shortage occupations list, which would go some way towards easing the burden created by foreign drivers returning to their home countries. Looking elsewhere, government should also look for ways to increase the availability of HGV driver tests after the blockage created by the coronavirus lockdowns.
Looking more long-term, steps must be taken to make a career in the industry a more attractive proposition for younger drivers, which will require a joint effort from government, industry bodies, and the sector as a whole. As it stands, multiple sources suggest that the average age of truck drivers in the UK is 48, with only one in every hundred drivers under the age of 25. We must therefore do more to increase the talent pipeline coming into the industry if we are to offset more significant skills shortages further down the line.
On the back of a turbulent year for the supply chain industry, it has become increasingly clear that the long-foretold shortage of drivers is now having a tangible and, in places, crippling effect on supply chains.
Drivers, and the wider supply chain industry, have rightly been recognised for the seismic role they played in keeping the nation moving and fed over the past year under unprecedented strain. If this level of service is to continue, we must now see Government answer calls to provide the support the sector needs, and work hand-in-hand with the industry to find a solution. If we do not see concrete action to this effect soon, we are likely to be in for a turbulent few months.
Rob Wright is executive director at SCALA, a leading provider of management services for the supply chain and logistics sector