Getting rail back on track

In the ever-expanding network of sector skills councils (SSCs) – a key plank in the Government’s strategy to promote an employer-led approach to skills and vocational training – rail is conspicuous in its absence.

It’s somewhat surprising, given the increased focus and concern over rail that led the Government to outline a radical reform of the network in its White Paper published in July. Lord Cullen, who chaired the Paddington rail crash inquiry, recommended in the paper that the industry should increase its focus on skills and on training its workforce.

However, Christopher Duff, chief executive of the Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA), which oversees the SSC network, suggests that rail does not meet the criteria for “strategic and economic significance”.

“Most professions in the rail industry are already well represented by existing and developing SSCs,” he said. “In fact, only around 60,000 people employed in rail are not in a profession covered by another SSC.”

But there have been efforts – dating back well over a year – to establish an SSC for the rail industry, which have failed. Where there was once universal support from industry to establish the Centre for Rail Skills (CfRS) as an aspirant SSC, the two largest industry employers, Network Rail and London Underground, have lost faith in the body.

In an attempt to find a solution, the SSDA is funding a consultant to carry out a review of rail skills. This coincides with the Depart-ment for Transport’s implementation of a White Paper outlining plans to abolish the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) – which was instrumental in setting up the CfRS – and transfer responsibilities to the Government and Network Rail.

But the SSDA’s decision to include the credibility-suffering CfRS and SRA on the steering group for its consultation has provoked controversy. The group should instead be made up of employers with a proven track record on skills, according to Iain Smith, London Underground’s head of engineering and technical skills.

“One of the key outputs of this is an employer-led strategy,” he said. “Why would you not then give employers an actual steer on the consultation process? How else will they have ownership?”

Describing CfRS as having “no understanding of the industry, its needs and no networks”, Smith said London Underground and Network Rail withdrew their membership in frustration – and made more progress on skills in the past year than the previous 10.

For example, some 5,000 London Under-ground staff have achieved Level-2 NVQs in rail operations, in line with government strategy. Network Rail, for its part, is setting up a massive network of training centres, including one for management that would be available to anyone in the industry, and which was commended in the White Paper.

Ian Livsey, managing director of CfRS, insisted the body is “forging ahead” in meeting the needs of its members, including the pursuit of vocational qualifications, and representing the industry to Government.

Asked about the impact of two of the industry’s main players withdrawing support, he said: “The fact of the matter is the CfRS is here delivering what our members feel is a very useful service, or they wouldn’t be members. I’m pursuing the agenda that our members want.”

Nevertheless, the Department for Transport’s White Paper outlines the importance of getting Network Rail on board. It describes it as the “single body within the rail industry with overall responsibility for delivering improved performance, and for providing leadership on issues where there is a need for cross-industry action”.

The SSDA, whose consultation is now underway, with a full report expected early next year, has promised to review the decision not to include Network Rail on the steering group.

To a large extent, the controversy surrounding efforts to take a national approach to rail skills simply reflects the industry’s fragmented, post-privatisation era. But now that the Government has made clear its intention to radically reform how the network is managed, the national skills agenda will have to catch up.

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