One constant in the history of rail has been the necessity for the industry to build its skills in line with technological evolution. From steam to diesel to electric, innovation demands organisations upskill in step with the latest advancements in order to remain competitive.

Today, digital transformation is presenting the sector with a new set of skills challenges to address. While digitisation promises a great deal, securing maximum value from digital technologies depends on organisations developing the right skill sets across their workforce. And the range of skills required is broad, covering everything from engineering to data science.

Upskilling engineers

Installing high-speed data services is one of the key steps toward digitising railways and requires specialist skills for effective roll-out. These engineers need to have rail sector experience, particularly working at trackside. And when it comes to the provision of sufficient backhaul capacity, they need to be able to work with sensitive coax cable and fibre. Both demand careful handling and precision fitting to avoid performance degradation.

Ensuring these networks then deliver a consistent wireless service for fast-moving trains presents a different kind challenge. Engineers have to perform in-depth radio frequency (RF) planning to help with decisions such as antenna positioning and where to locate trackside base station hotels. In both instances, due to ongoing skills shortages in this area, for many organisations the answer is to work with an experienced infrastructure partner that accepts responsibility for upskilling contractors as and when required.

Computer science skillsets

Once communications hardware is in place, rail organisations have a fantastic opportunity to use digital technologies to improve the experience of both passengers and staff. In Canada, the Toronto Transit Commission’s new wireless network provided by BAI Communications was central to the launch of SafeTTC. SafeTTC is a free mobile app offering passengers the ability to report events like harassment, safety concerns and suspicious activity.

Of course, creating these apps demands expertise in software development. While many brands will outsource these kinds of tasks, it’s increasingly important that organisations have these skills in-house as apps require intermittent updates and ongoing maintenance. What’s more, if successful, they represent valuable IP.

With coding skills currently in short supply (Tech City UK reports that over 50 percent of the UK’s digital tech community struggle to source skilled employees) transport businesses need to proactively address this issue. Partnering with organisations in the education sector to help support the next generation of software development specialists is a good approach. Government backed initiatives like the Institute of Coding, are bringing together universities and businesses to help upskill the UK’s workforce for an increasingly digitised economy.

Disruptive start-ups and in-house skills

As digitisation continues, rail can keep the pace of innovation to ensure it has the right skills available to ensure effective transformation. We believe that a major part of this will be a recognition of the value of partnerships with innovative organisations outside of the sector. Historically, rail authorities have kept responsibility for infrastructure and operations in-house. However, today, there’s a great deal of the UK’s digitally literate talent found amongst the start-up community. As an industry, we would be well advised to look in their direction for disruptive new ways of doing things.

But it’s not just about sourcing skills externally. To fully reap the benefits that these technologies have to provide, the industry can think digitally from board level down. Skills sharing will be a fundamental part of this – something BAI is promoting, both internally and with our partners. For example, we currently operate an international skills exchange initiative, where talented individuals visit colleagues in other countries to share the benefit of their experience.

First class passenger experience and service delivery is now central to success, and digital technologies are key to achieving this. By ensuring they have a backbone of digital skills throughout their business, rail organisations can transform business models to more effectively address this challenge. What’s more, they’ll increase their operational efficiency and create new revenue driving opportunities.

By Billy D'Arcy Chief Executive Officer, BAI UK