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The bit in the background that makes everything tick

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UK Power Networks Services’ head of rail, David Mitchell, gives his thoughts on renewable energy, the skills gap and how the industry is coping with the energy demand created by the modern railway.

How do you view UK Power Networks Services’ role within the industry?

We are one cog within the overall railway industry, which is changing positively.

It’s rewarding to do the bit in the background that makes the whole thing tick.

How important has efficiency and energy monitoring become to the running of the railway?

We’ve carried out various studies for our clients. Looked at the elements that consume the power within the system and what options there are that can reduce energy consumption. It is all about understanding what’s causing the demands and can it be changed.

Technology has advanced significantly, which is helping. Things have got smaller, you get more from a piece of equipment these days, the power consumption, the losses, are less from the equipment. Regenerative braking is used both on AC and DC systems to recover energy. We have recently been involved in installing DC inversion regenerating braking which increases the energy recovery.

Everybody is also much more conscious about energy and energy demand. Now people are realising that energy conservation is better than just keeping increasing the capacity, so wiser use of energy is economically and environmentally sensible.

But I suppose it isn’t all about technology; people play a big part.

Effectively, with power it’s just like a car, when you accelerate you take a lot more energy in than when you’re dissipating it. Historically that has always just been by heat, and heat is a waste product really rather than a useful product in this context.

Train operators know that if you actually educate your drivers to drive the trains in an optimal way then you could reduce power consumption, which is energy saving, one, and two. If it’s an environment where you have heat issues, such as a sub-surface railway, it helps address that issue as well.

We talk about rail as a green form of public transport but clearly for this to truly be the case, the network needs to be powered by a renewable source. Is the UK’s renewal energy plan working or is there more that could be done?

We are behind, in my view, with the rest of the world. Certainly there’s an investment required around the piece. There’s hydro, wind farms, the solar farms that are going up. Energy storage is in its infancy, but new schemes have been commissioned quite recently, so I think we’re going down the road.

I think there’s a great opportunity in the future. In particular with things like the land holdings of Network Rail, being able to consider putting some energy efficiency plant, green plant, within the area so it can help manage the load profile. Because we can just see by timetables the demand. You don’t need to plot electricity consumption to know that the more trains you run, the more demand that you’re taking from the system.

I’m sure that going into the future we can have a more sustainable railway system. It certainly seems to becoming more attractive to the travelling public. The amount of energy that’s put in per passenger journey is certainly reducing both in efficiency drives and the number of people travelling, so there’s a sort of double whammy there.

We’re not just operating more trains, we’re operating modern trains with lots of ancillary systems which all need power. Is that the challenge?

The travelling public want more. I mean air conditioning seems to be what we expect as the norm now and you notice people with their laptops plugged in and having leaky Wi-Fi available. All those sorts of bits of pieces, they’re all challenges for the railway. It is a different environment.

Electrification is one area where we know there is a lack of engineering skills. How is UK Power Networks Services as a company addressing this?

I suppose in Britain we don’t truly value engineers, or we don’t demonstrate that we value the engineers. There is a shortage of skilled engineers in the UK – and railway ones specifically.

We do have within the industry an ageing population and a number of the people with great knowledge, years of experience – working in these industries you need to understand the industry not just the theories – we have been losing those skills and not just our company, all companies. That does create a little bit of a Merry Go Round.

We have been recruiting graduates and taking them through training programmes to try and be in the best position to meet future demand. Now there’s a balance there between bringing the right number on board, training them in time to meet work demands, bearing in mind you always lose some. You almost put them in the pond, if you like, grow them to a certain size and others pluck them out. That’s always a risk, and I think every company would say the same.

We have graduate and apprentice training schemes, and we are actually participating in Network Rail’s apprenticeship scheme this year to put some apprentices through so they become more rail-orientated but still developing their power skills.

The numbers aren’t as large as they have been in previous years in the industry as a whole, but we are continuing to develop staff and give staff in house the opportunity because that’s key as well.

Do you feel that there is support from the government to try and address this? Is the structure in place to start to improve the situation?

I believe it’s getting better. There appears to be greater support from government in training schemes…There is greater encouragement.

In the round, yes things are getting better. Could there be more done? Yes, there could be more done in order to make engineering more attractive to the younger generations.

Apprenticeship schemes, I’m a strong advocate. It’s getting the timing right and obviously you have to get the numbers through.


UK Power Networks Services provides financing, consultancy, construction and the ongoing operation and maintenance of power systems around the UK across rail, airports, defence and nuclear.

UK Power Networks Services’ core obligations and responsibilities include the operation and maintenance of HS1’s power supply system and the Docklands Light Railway Lewisham branch power supply system.

The company is also involved in major schemes like the Great Western electrification, the Thameslink power upgrade and London Underground’s power upgrade programme.


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