BY 2010 we will have a modern, punctual, clean and safe railway system carrying 50 per cent more passengers and 80 per cent more freight - if the further education sector comes to the rescue.
To meet the needs of the Government's 10-year transport plan, the rail industry will need to train 900 drivers, 800 signallers and 1,200 tracklayers. It wants a network of colleges at the heart of a new training programme. "Only 150 young people in the rail industry have started Modern Apprenticeships in the last five years," John Healey, then adult skills minister, announced in the spring. "In an industry of 130,000 people, only around 400 have an NVQ."
Privatisation in 1994 fragmented an industry already suffering from under-investment and a poor image. Since then, many firms competing to win short-term franchises have laid off staff and failed to invest in and develop training.
The problem is that, despite the obvious massive need for high-grade replacement and maintenance work on the rail system, companies who supply such services feel insecure about the future. A survey carried out by the Rail Industry Training Council in July 2001 shows they do not know whether they will get contracts, nor how long they will last. Rather than train new staff they may not be able to afford to keep, they fight over the declining pool of experienced workers after they win contracts.
A labour supply company reported: "The employer is unwilling to increase numbers or invest in training new employees having lost a substantial sum during most of 2000. Finds expectation that people can be turned on and off like a tap depressing."
Accidents at Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield threw a harsh searchlight on staff competence. But the rail training council - the national training body for the industry - cannot be sure how well-trained staff are because of the poor quality of data.
A recent council project examined training criteria across a number of rail companies, to help develop standardised, rail-specific NVQs. (see below).
The Government has put pound;680,000 into rail training and promised an extra pound;500,000 to back Modern Apprenticeships for mature people in the industry. Normally such training is for those under 25. But funding training long-term is a knotty issue. According to the council, "the industry does not support a voluntary (training)levy." But now the Government intends to make franchise agreements contingent upon satisfactory training strategies, rail firms are turning to colleges for help.
Colleges working with industry can bid for funds to develop specialist training. They get up to pound;300,000 in the start-up year and up to pound;100,000 in each of the following two years. Newham College, London, has already become the first Centre of Vocational Excellence for rail training.