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Indian engineers to save UK rail network

Source: PTI
August 13, 2004 16:06 IST
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Faced with acute shortage of skill, Britain has imported a dozen Indian engineers to carry out urgent work on its crumbling rail network and refurbish signal boxes dating back to the Victorian era.

The emergency mission to upgrade the outdated Victorian signal boxes was launched when desperate bosses realised there were not enough experts here to do the job, Daily Express tabloid reported.

More than 150 years after Britain first built tracks in India, Network Rail chiefs have been forced to spend around £40,000 to fly in the 12 Indian workers because of the skills shortage.

Without their help, managers, overseeing £85 million improvements on the West Coast mainline from London to Glasgow, knew they had no chance of completing the work on time.

The team of Indian engineers was nearing the end of its three-week project on the signal boxes at Stockport, Edgeley and Heaton Norris, the report said.

The signal boxes date back to the 19th century. They consist of a mass of levers, which are connected to track signals and junctions, also known as 'points.'

Network Rail, which took over responsibility for rail infrastructure improvements from Railtrack, admitted it had to buy in foreign labour if the work was to be completed.

"There were not enough resources within the UK so we were given permission to bring in the team from India who have worked alongside British workers," said a spokeswoman.

"We are committed to improving levels of training and expertise in this country," the spokeswoman said.

She said the initial decision to demolish the boxes and replace them with one 'super signal box,' was no longer affordable.

The men, who are qualified mechanical engineers, have been upgrading the system of locks and levers underneath boxes which connect to signals and points. Their knowledge has been built up over years of repairing similar antique systems installed by British pioneers across India a century ago.

The West Coast mainline upgrade is designed to make it suitable for 200 kmph tilting trains.

Stockport station has been closed for nine weeks, and trains to and from Manchester replaced by buses causing disruption to passengers.

John Thurso, Liberal Democrat spokesman on transport, said it was 'extraordinary' that the Victoria boxes were being allowed to stay.

"I suppose this is a great tribute to Indian engineering, but it really is a matter of grave concern that something of this age and low technology is not being replaced in the upgrade," he said.

"It seems extraordinary that Network Rail are not replacing these signal boxes because, in the long term, they will need upgrading. It begs the question whether the work really is an upgrade or just a partial upgrade?" he said.

"They are operating on a false economy because, when they do come to change the signal boxes, it will cause more delays to passengers and cost even more money."

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