Described by then Prime Minister David Cameron as an “engineering triumph”, the successful Crossrail project embodies the booming confidence across the UK rail sector. The promise of additional funding for transport in Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement last November has only added to the positive feeling within the engineering community. Our recent Voice of the Workforce report of 2,500 engineers echoes this as it found that 72% of those working in the sector believe that rail will grow or increase its revenues over the next 12 months.

With a number of projects in the pipeline, from the ground-breaking HS2 scheme to the capacity upgrade at Bank Station, there is a risk that the UK talent pool will be stretched over the coming years. Add a post-Brexit uncertainty around the free movement of people and the sector is faced with a real challenge. However, we can build on the success of Crossrail to ensure that Britain is prepared to deliver these transformational infrastructure projects.

Crossrail, like other major rail schemes, demanded very specific combinations of skill sets. For example, project managers would require all CAD contractors to use the same software and unusually sit in the same central office, which limited access to talent across the UK and abroad. Future projects, particularly those on the scale of HS2, will require a flexible and sustainable approach to recruitment in order to attract the high number of people the project will require. Beyond the ability to work remotely, the transfer of relevant skills should be encouraged. High value projects such as Heathrow Airport and Hinkley Point have uncovered an array of expertise across other sectors and HS2 is already running specific courses across the UK to utilise these more diverse talent pools.

Another lesson that we learned from Crossrail ties into a common problem across the engineering industry; the need to attract a new generation of skilled professionals. 27% of rail engineers who took part in our Voice of the Workforce research identified the ageing workforce as a threat to sector growth and this was evident during Crossrail, with many of its contractors also involved in the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in the 1990s. While this experience is invaluable, the scale and volume of planned rail schemes will require a fresh intake of engineering talent.

Since its inception, Crossrail has faced competition from several major global projects. Lucrative expat markets have drawn both UK-based and overseas talent away, leaving resource gaps and recruitment headaches. Moving forward, the UK must celebrate its rich heritage in the rail sector and underline the global significance of upcoming projects. HS2, for example, should be positioned as a career-defining scheme to retain our best engineers. Our Voice of the Workforce results are encouraging, with 67% of rail engineers confident about career progression within the next 12 months; a sentiment that should be built upon.

Attracting the world’s top talent has also been integral to the delivery of rail projects in the UK. The nation’s decision to leave the European Union last June has left an air of uncertainty over the movement of skilled labour. However, the Government’s lofty infrastructure ambitions will require access to this resource. During Crossrail, recruiters and project managers have successfully learned to cast the net wider, even beyond the EU, and demand for specialist skills will be driven even higher by HS2 and other planned railway developments. Therefore, the fundamental focus for our industry is using success stories like Crossrail to position the UK as a global hub for rail engineering, both for home grown and overseas talent.


If you’re interested in working on HS2 or are keen to hear about further opportunities in rail, please contact Graham Day on 01489 898183 or via email

This article will feature in the Institute of Civil Engineers’ next Civil Engineering quarterly journal.

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