The UK rail industry: taking up the strain

Is the UK still a front-rank rail equipment manufacturer or is its future to be maintenance and support for equipment made elsewhere? Ruari McCallion reports.

“The rail industry” is a simple term that straddles a wide and complex array of businesses and activities, including construction; civil engineering; electronics, and communications, as well as mechanical and electrical engineering.

Reinventing our Railways
“The rail industry” is a simple term that straddles a wide and complex array of businesses and activities.

Although the UK was the pioneer of not only the railways themselves but advances and developments along the way, from high-speed vehicles to tilting trains, it’s clear that other countries have pulled ahead, in terms of track, speed and technology.

Derby could once have claimed to be the hub of world railway engineering and manufacturing, but that is not the case now.

The awarding of the contract for the latest Thameslink trains, the 700 Class Desiro series, to Siemens in Germany looked dangerously like the final nail in the coffin for rolling stock manufacturing in the UK.

However, the award of Crossrail rolling stock contract to Bombardier, for 65 new Class 345 Aventra trains and worth £1bn, along with ongoing London Underground work, has helped retain a key business in the sector, which has revenues of around £2bn annually and employs more than 5,500 people in the UK.

The Crossrail contract will support 760 UK manufacturing jobs and 80 apprenticeships; depot construction will create 244 jobs and 16 apprenticeships, with a further 80 jobs once operational to maintain the new fleet.

Crossrail InfographicAn estimated 74% of the Crossrail spend will remain within the UK economy and Bombardier has pledged to target 25% of the value of the contract on SMEs.

Rolling stock contracts are, by their very nature, long term – the InterCity 125 trains are now 45 years old. They are now being replaced, by the Hitachi Class 800 Super Express.

The first batch has been designed and manufactured in Japan, but 122 of them are to be assembled at a new plant in Co. Durham.

Until the Hitachi plant opens, Bombardier remains the only major train manufacturer in the UK and accounts for more than 75% of industry revenue.

Smaller companies have, for the moment, effectively one domestic manufacturer to deal with, which means that Bombardier’s influence within the industry is large.

Canary Wharf Crossrail Station - Creating spaces, leading regeneration and boosting economy
Canary Wharf Crossrail Station – Creating spaces, leading regeneration and boosting economy

That can be positive (we all know where we stand and what the rules of the game are) or negative (if the biggest domino falls, everything goes with it).

As the Transport Minister observed, the supply chain is perhaps not as robust as could be wished, although initiatives are in place to help it improve, including the Rail Industry Association (RIA) Value Improvement Programme, which aims to drive waste out of the supply chain and is in addition to its BS11000 collaborative framework initiative.

The Department for Transport announced in 2014 a £500,000 investment in the Rail Supply Group, intended to help rail suppliers secure new business at home and internationally.

While rolling stock can be built anywhere in the world, infrastructure and maintenance have to be on the spot.

RIA’s list of companies that provide maintenance includes Alstom; Hitachi; Serco, and Voith Turbo, as well as Bombardier.

Knorr-Bremse Rail Systems (UK) Limited, formerly Westinghouse Brakes (UK) Limited, invested millions of pounds in a new headquarters in Melksham, Wiltshire.

It offers rail braking systems to the UK and Irish and markets. The Westinghouse Brakes brand is retained for international markets.

Unipart Dorman has received Network Rail acceptance for its integrated Lightweight Signal (iLS), which was developed by the company in close connection with the industry.
Unipart Dorman has received Network Rail acceptance for its integrated Lightweight Signal (iLS), which was developed by the company in close connection with the industry.

Westcode (UK) Ltd is one of a number of companies that provides overhaul and repair of HVAC; door; brake; air suspension, and air supply equipment.

In the infrastructure area, Unipart Dorman, for example, is a leader in LED signalling and has installed more than 90,000 units on the UK infrastructure and overseas. It is one of Network Rail’s suppliers of cables and associated cable fixings and fittings.

The relationship between OEMs and the supply chain is symbiotic; neither will be completely healthy without the other.

On the other hand, maintenance and infrastructure will always be there and so will the need to service it.

The high visibility trains may be built elsewhere but the provision to build, service and maintain the infrastructure they run on has to be provided locally.

That may not be the most glamorous of futures to some, but it’s the essence of the system.