telent Managing Director, Rail, Steve Pears spoke to Marc Johnson about telent’s future and how new technology is the answer to rail’s skills challenge.

The modern passenger takes for granted the ease with which they are able to make a call or access free Wi-Fi at stations. A high-speed internet connection is now almost a basic human right rather than a luxury.

To meet this expectation, the existing telecommunications infrastructure is having to rapidly mature and the railway in particular is trying hard to keep up.

‘Traditionally the rail industry has always been seen as technologically backwards,’ says Steve, who heads telent’s rail division. telent is one of the established names in railway telecommunications which is helping to lead organisations like Network Rail and London Underground through this complex period of technological change.

Five-year plan

Steve joined telent’s predecessor, General Electric Company, in 1978. He worked within the defence sector, designing radar and control systems for the military for 20 years before moving over to rail. In his own words, Steve is a ‘very long-term’ employee and has been involved in a number of major schemes, including the implementation of the first GSM-R network in the UK in the late 1990s.

In 2013, Steve set out in this magazine telent’s plan to double its rail division and employ 100 new, skilled employees within five years. The company’s growth projection is broadly on target, says Steve, and recruitment is actually ahead of where the organisation expected it to be. Last year, telent’s rail division brought in eight new apprentices and 10 graduates. ‘They are really helping us to drive and develop the business,’ said Steve.

Shortly after that article went to press, telent was awarded a contract by Network Rail to create a new national system to control traction power around the network. Known as SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), the system will be managed from the new integrated Rail Operating Centres (ROCs).

SCADA, electrification control will become a national function rather than a regional one. A nationwide programme such as this presents numerous challenges, especially given Network Rail’s desire for greater devolution to the routes, and it’s an example of the large-scale changes taking place within the rail telecommunications field.

Digital Railway

Some of the biggest changes are encapsulated within Network Rail’s Digital Railway programme. telent is feeding its experience and expertise into Digital Railway, which over the next 15-25 years will see digital signalling and train control systems improving the availability and quality of services around the network.

The scale of Digital Railway’s ambition will require both the recruitment of new engineers and the retraining of experienced staff – not a task to be taken lightly given the lack of graduate engineers and the demand for qualified trainers. But Steve considers the Digital Railway to be rail’s best opportunity in years to attract bright, inventive young engineers.

‘I think in terms of the new technologies that are coming in it allows greater flexibility, and it allows us to bring more people into the industry in a way that we would have found difficult in the past.’

He added, ‘If you think about most signalling systems, you’re talking about equipment that was developed back in the 1970s. It’s not been an attractive industry for young engineers who want to have the latest technology and the latest technical capability.

‘Whereas now, with Digital Railway, I think that’s quite different, and what you’re getting is very up-to-date skills and some really interesting projects on which to deploy those skills.’

Knowledge transfer

One area of concern, however, surrounds the transfer of knowledge. Decades of experience held by veteran employees could be lost over the next few years as a generation retire and leave the industry. There is also a risk that the introduction of vastly different technologies and ways of working could speed up this exodus.

But Steve believes the current balance between new technology and old means established members of the workforce aren’t feeling managed out of the industry; they are embracing the changes.

Says Steve, ’Change at the moment is not so rapid. What we’re seeing is new things coming in but the level of requirement for the more traditional skills still remains… What we’re really seeing is an increase in demand for new skills. I don’t think that people feel threatened by the requirements for new skills because it isn’t a threat for them at the moment, but it is an opportunity.

‘At telent we spend a lot of money training our staff and on developing our staff because if you’ve got great people who’ve got the right approach to the job, who’ve got the right attitude and fit well within the business, giving them extra technical skills is an obvious thing to be doing.’

As well as relationships with Network Rail and London Underground, telent supplies and maintains networks for train operators, including MTR Crossrail, HS1 and LOROL, which were all added to telent’s client list in 2015.

A significant part of its business is asset management, including the application of intelligent monitoring systems that are able to predict failures before they happen. It is this variety of work that has appealed to Steve over the last 37 years.

’I’ve always been able to do new and interesting, different things,’ says Steve. ‘If I look at what I do now compared with when I started in the business, it bares no resemblance whatsoever to it.’

telent’s diverse service offering will continue to grow over the next 12 months, as the company looks to stay at the forefront of the industry’s technological revolution. Says Steve, ’There are a number of opportunities that we’re currently negotiating where I think they offer similar large steps forward in our capability and will require people able to deliver those new services.’

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