Victoria’s Big Build is on the hunt for the next ‘unicorns’ of the rail industry to take part in fast-tracked training to fill vital signalling jobs.

Train signalling is the nervous system of any rail network. It’s the complex system of wires, computer software and mechanical equipment that allows trains to run safely. When there is any incident involving signalling, specialists are called in to fix the problem.

However, these specialists are also busy delivering the unprecedented $90 billion investment in transport infrastructure. As level crossings are removed, signalling is upgraded. As the Metro Tunnel is built and commissioned, signalling is required.

As we plan and begin work on the Suburban Rail Loop and Melbourne Airport Rail, signallers are designing, installing and testing the systems that will make it all work. Often referred to as the ‘unicorns’ of the rail industry, experienced rail signallers are fast becoming a rare commodity.

Due to the pipeline of transport infrastructure projects under Victoria’s Big Build, there is a need to find the next generation of signalling specialists. The industry is looking to secure the skills and knowledge required to transform signalling systems to the latest modern technology, while maintaining safety and ensuring services continue to run with maximum reliability.

The most impacted and in demand roles are principal testers, testers in charge, and senior designers. Over the next 15 years the number of people working in these roles is expected to triple. That means there’s now opportunities for hundreds of graduates to get trained and employed.

New online course to fast-track trainees

The Major Transport Infrastructure Signalling Strategy Taskforce, in consultation with industry, has released a new suite of online, streamlined training to enhance the way Victoria’s major rail projects are rolled out through quicker, more accessible, and more certain training pathways for vital rail signalling resources.

Victorian Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, Jacinta Allan, said this new suite of online, streamlined training is a step in the right direction, paving the way for qualified signalling resources to get on the ground, getting work done. “There are more than 20,000 people working on the 165 rail and road projects that make up the Big Build – but we need and want more,” Ms Allan said.

The training is an important step towards plugging resourcing gaps as the program of works gets bigger, and the aging demographic retires from specialist roles. The e-learning module means these essential ‘unicorns’ of the rail industry can be prepared and out on the ground faster, helping to build, upgrade and maintain the ever-growing network.

To become a rail signalling engineer, you need a degree in electrical, science, mechanical or information technology plus have more than five years of experience as a professional engineer in similar fields.

Under previous processes, you’d then be mentored, an often time consuming and unclear road to signalling work. The new system allows would be signalling engineers to complete the e-learning needed to demonstrate they’re ready to start their Signalling Assistant Designer role and commence their upskilling journey to becoming a qualified Signalling Designer, or Tester and beyond.

Competency and Skills Development Lead on the MTIA Signalling Taskforce, Mathew Sekulitch, said this new training creates a clearer pathway to becoming a Signalling Designer and Tester, putting the focus on getting on the ground and delivering in the field.

“It’s a great way to fast-track your way off the bench, and onto the field where you can make a big difference,” Mr Sekulitch said. The modules were deployed in March 2022 and updated in July post an industry review period and are recognised by both MTM and V/Line, again streamlining the entry process to work on both networks.

Additional courses are being developed in 2023 to support upskilling workers in other Signalling Design and Tester roles. The skills and expertise of signalling resources are expected to be in increasing demand. As a graduate, you can expect to earn about $70,000 a year and, as you progress, there is capacity to earn even more in senior management roles in testing and design.

Updates to train signalling

Major Transport Infrastructure Authority Director General, Corey Hannett, said signalling is a crucial part of the network and in high demand. “This online training will help us get more designers competent and able to hit the ground running to help improve our rail system,” Mr Hannett said.

The government has also endorsed a new, proactive system that will allow safe, smaller distances between trains, boosting network capacity – allowing more trains to run, more often. The European Train Control System (ETCS) has been endorsed as the preferred technology for addressing Victoria’s long term rail signalling needs.

The ETCS is being used in New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand, and supports mixed traffic including metro, regional and freight trains. The current signalling system allows a maximum of 18 trains per hour (tph), the new system will allow 24tph – or a 30 per cent improvement.

Other benefits include less trackside equipment, reducing maintenance, boosting reliability and reducing operating costs. The system will also integrate with the Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) to be used on the Metro Tunnel and likely to be used on the Suburban Rail Loop. CBTC is most suitable for these projects.

Now the system has been endorsed, investigations to identify a suitable pilot site to better inform future projects has commenced.

Retired rail signallers and the new engineers replacing them

Name a Melbourne rail project from the past 30 years and Ron Cranston and Selvadurai ‘Selva’ Nithianandan have worked on it. Rail signalling engineers Ron Cranston, 69, and Selvadurai ‘Selva’ Nithianandan, 67, have worked alongside each other for 25-years on some of Melbourne’s most iconic rail projects including:

  • Melbourne Underground Rail Loop – the City Loop
  • Jolimont Rationalisation which saw Flinders Street rail yard reconfigured to accommodate construction of Federation Square
  • Upgrades on all but a few regional and metropolitan rail lines
  • Level crossing removals

Mr Cranston started his career in 1975 and retired in July 2022, while Mr Nithianandan started in 1986 and is paring back his hours in anticipation of retiring soon. The Metro Tunnel will be one of the final projects they work on – the biggest underground rail project since the City Loop.

In practical terms, Mr Cranston and Mr Nithianandan are two of the only ‘unicorns’ in the country who know how to work systems like ‘geographical interlocking’. They’re known as the guys you call when you have a signalling problem.

These systems are being phased out – but remain in situ at busy interchanges including Southern Cross Station, near Jolimont and Bell Street, Preston. Mr Cranston said signalling isn’t complicated, there’s just a lot of it.

“It’s just a bunch of lines and cross sections on a piece of paper, until you see it in real life. We would never have thought Melbourne would have the population to support the Metro Tunnel,” Mr Cranston said. Mr Nithianandan said he loves sharing his knowledge and industry experience with engineers who are entering the industry.

“Ron and I are good friends, we’ve solved many problems and helped each other a lot over the years. We’ve helped a lot of other people too,” Mr Nithianandan said. “The industry is small, everyone gets to know your name and everyone wants you to work on their project.”

Both men have passed on decades of knowledge to the next generation of signalling engineers, including Priannka Kumar, 35, who counts both as significant mentors and has worked with them on projects including:

  • William’s Landing
  • Pakenham East Depot
  • The Regional Rail Revival

Ms Kumar said she first met Mr Nithianandan when he was seconded into her team as a team leader, and then upon meeting Mr Cranston, found him to also be very professional and polite.

“Selva cares about the person as well as the task. If you’re not sure of where to go or what to do about something, he’s the first person I would call. He just shares that information freely, and doesn’t hold information back. If you show that initiative, he’ll show it back.

“Ron will take the time to work through with you how to solve the problem, rather than just telling you the answer. He doesn’t just answer the ‘what’, he answers the ‘why’ as well,” Ms Kumar said.

In a growing trend, these highly experienced industry technical specialists are reaching the end of their careers with a wealth of knowledge now hopefully passed on to the next generation.

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