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The March of the Robots

As I chatted enthusiastically to the taxi driver taking me to the airport about my role in digitalising the rail industry we got on to the equivalent in road transport and inevitably driverless cars. We quickly realised that this could soon put him out of a job. There was an awkward silence and then the conversation continued with what the weather was going to be like over the next week.


The “March of the robots”, as it has been dramatically described, is a difficult subject. How do we adapt to a digitally enabled age without losing our human identity, sense of worth and, in some cases, our livelihood.

Some see it as a journey they would rather not take and the backlash is to go retro with vinyl sales outstripping CDs, paper books overtaking digital downloads and the rumour that Nokia might release the good old 3310. I checked the back of my cupboard and I still have my 6230 with 1.3 Megapixel camera!

Nowhere is the tension more keenly felt than in the workforce. The Times reported that Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite, has decided that rather than fight the march of robots it might as well embrace it. Unite is drafting a strategy to ensure it rides the wave of change sweeping through the automotive world.

The challenge at the delivery end is driverless cars and at the production end it is the robot production lines. Unite has said that it wants to ensure skills keep pace with technological change and says it is preparing for the future. So the automotive industry is setting out a strategy for industrial cooperation.

What of rail?

Last year, a committee of MPs undertook an inquiry into railway technology. The Transport Committee’s report was largely positive about the benefits of deploying digital train control and made a series of recommendations, one of which covered industrial relations. The House of Commons Transport Committee wants the Digital Railway programme to engage with the railway trades unions and have “a strategy for staff training and development that is as intrinsic to the programme as engineering works”.

The DR Programme has responded positively saying that “the way the railway affects staff has always been a key element of the programme’s work”. Since the committee produced its report, the Digital Railway Programme has put in place several new engagement forums including a joint working group of Network Rail’s operations council with operational staff representatives from the major rail unions.

My first rail project was the Docklands Light Railway followed quickly by the Dubai Metro, both driverless and both still going from strength to strength in terms of ridership and expansion. In both cases there was no industrial case to make as they were green field opportunities and the advantages of a computer controlled railway could be exploited without the need for union debate. Now 25 years on it’s time to transform our existing railway.

I believe that a major part of achieving industrial cooperation is in developing a skills base which is aligned to the future digital needs rather than the traditional roles currently employed on today’s railway. In a cross industry round table discussion organised jointly with the IRSE, I highlighted the transformation of the work force as a key enabler to successful deployment of the Digital Railway.

The round table proposed that the rail industry needs to present itself more attractively as an employment proposition, so that young people in particular want to join the sector. One step to address this is to develop formal qualifications with courses such as an MSc in Digital Train Control Systems currently being considered by Birmingham University. In addition to this a positive step would be the setting up of training academies to specifically focus on the needs of the digital railway. They should focus on recruiting the new young skills base and deliver a range of skills relevant to planning, designing and most importantly operating the digital railway.

The good news is that these issues are very much on the agenda and the major rail organisations are working to address the solutions. As the work force engages proactively with the new technology the need to protect established roles will decrease as will industrial tensions with the introduction of more automation.

The rail sector has a major role to play to get ahead of the game so that our young people are ready for employment in the digital age. The recent announcement of additional government funding in skills development for young people is a welcome part of this and we need to make sure it is focused on the right areas. The challenge is for the digital railway programme and the rail industry as a whole to play its part in this.

Steve Denniss is technical director for rail at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff

This blog first appeared in Construction News here.