By Paul Sheerin


Alongside some welcome holidays, July provided another cause for celebration for the Scottish Engineering team as we were awarded the contract to extend our operation of the Rail Cluster Builder for Scotland. This second phase will see us continuing to work closely with Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, and Transport Scotland for a further three years, building on the momentum achieved in the first two years of the initiative.

The role of clusters is recognised worldwide as a key to improving productivity, investment, skills and jobs, driven by the unusual mix of encouraging both competition and collaboration simultaneously. It hits success when an optimum combination of the right ingredients are brought together.

Scotland’s rail cluster has built these to a good level with more than five hundred organisations – of which almost half are Scottish SMEs – and business connections between industry tiers and academic and other supporting organisations. However, this next phase must carry the ambition to drive the curve onwards and upwards at pace.

Clusters work well when there is connection, support, and encouragement both vertically (from large OEMs to the smallest SME) and horizontally where peer-to-peer best practice sharing, and competitiveness to match it, can be a powerful motivator. Innovation is important too – not necessarily something that is new to the whole world, but more likely something tried and tested from other sectors.

But most of all there must be demand: real opportunities allowing the benefits of diversity of thought and shortening of supply chains to flow to companies engaged in the cluster,. This above anything is the acid test for SMEs investing resource to break into the sector the cluster is encouraging them to join.

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No surprise then that our team is always scanning the horizon for major contracts coming down the track, and last week saw the announcement of the early stage in one of Scotland’s most important rail infrastructure projects for the next decade or so.

As part of our recently-nationalised Scotland’s Railway strategy ScotRail Trains plans to replace nearly three quarters of its fleet, amounting to around 675 carriages, between 2027 and 2035. This ties in exactly with Scotland’s Rail Service Decarbonisation Action plan with its UK-leading target for passenger rail transport. It outlines decarbonising the entire train fleet through a mix of technologies best suited to the network in Scotland, with all existing diesel trains withdrawn and replaced with overhead electric supply, battery or hydrogen technologies

This investment will also offer improved journey comfort, accessibility, and reliability. The transformation is planned over three stages with the first phase procuring a new fleet of suburban trains connecting local communities with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen, and entering passenger service between 2027 and 2030. Second and third phases will procure for rural routes, and intercity between the central belt and Aberdeen and Inverness respectively.

If your abiding memory of the summer of 2022 is one of deep concern at the crystal-clear evidence of the climate emergency witnessed through wildfires on the outskirts of London and heatwaves breaking records only just set, then the ambition in this plan will be welcome news. In engineering terms, the scale of this project will proceed at breakneck pace, which is entirely appropriate against what we are witnessing in climate change.

Tackling climate change is not the only target for our rail network – safety, reliability, convenience and especially affordability are essential to delivering a railway that people feel compelled to use, and projects of this scale open those wider opportunities for improvement too.

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Our unwavering target as a cluster is to ensure that all involved understand the value of opening up their supply chains to include the breadth and depth of capability available in the Scottish Rail Cluster, and to make it easy for them to engage and see the opportunity in investing that time for a beneficial return.

Replacing three quarters of the train fleet is a fair chunk of change that Scotland has chosen to tackle at pace to meet the challenge of the climate emergency, and we would argue that it’s not unreasonable to start from an expectation that our engineering and manufacturing sector will have a fair and open chance to participate in that.

Those of us on the team who have worked in manufacturing and engineering for many years will readily concede that in complex, highly-pressured commercial environments it can appear that the easiest and safest bet is to stick with the supply chain options that we know and trust.

However, for us working with the amazing and innovative SMEs in the Rail Cluster it is an eye-opener which illustrates how expanding the procurement horizon can drive real benefits for rail providers and customers alike in terms of performance, cost efficiency, and achieving our net zero targets.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering