Train driver shortage: can digital solutions and exchanging drivers help?
The job market for train drivers is tight, and within ten to fifteen years a substantial part of the labour force will retire. Digital solutions to simplify the exchange of train drivers among different operators can help to make the most of the current train driver workforce.
In general, the average age of the railway sector in Europe is increasing, and a significant portion will retire in the coming decades. A large share of the current workforce is expected to retire within the next 10 years, according to STAFFER. In the UK for example, the ageing labour force is leading to a retirement cliff edge. Nearly 50,000 rail industry employees, including train drivers, are expected to retire by 2030, according to the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR). In other transport modes like road, a driver shortage will also become an increasing problem.
Raoul Oomen, Country Manager at freight operator Captrain Netherlands, explains that it is not easy to schedule train driver shifts. Scheduling all services for goods trains to Germany, Switzerland and Italy, as well as shunting services for other freight operators, is quite the job. “Our Dutch drivers drive the train to Darmstadt or Koblenz, around 500 kilometres, and go back via other means the next day. A German colleague drives the train on to its final destination”, continues Oomen. With around 12 locomotives and 32 drivers, the rail freight operator is in the top five largest in the Netherlands. Divided between early, late and night shifts, national and internationa shifts, as well as taking into account rest times, guaranteed weekends off and travel times, scheduling is a tough challenge every week.
Compared to passenger train services, rail freight locomotive drivers face a much higher proportion of night shifts, according to the European Rail Freight Associatoin (ERFA). Crew rosters are less predictable and extra shifts are often required.
“Exchanging drivers among operators could be a godsend”
There is stiff competition in the world of rail freight, but there is also cooperation. For instance, Captrain carries out shunting in Moerdijk, Sittard and Waalhaven, among others, for several competitors such as LTE, SBB and RFO. “Cooperation happens a lot, for almost all trains. At Moerdijk, three different external carriers put down trains at low Zwaluwe, and for the last stretch without catenary, Captrain transports them with a diesel locomotive to Moerdijk.”
This goes quite easily according to agreements made, but more cooperation and exchange of drivers for filling shifts is something Oomen would like to see more of. “We see that in the future the availability of drivers in the Netherlands will become increasingly difficult. In face of this, the mutual exchange of drivers among freight operators could be a godsend.” This can help because if a train driver has to cancel a shift and there is not a large pool of colleagues who can take over, a train driver from another company might be available.
To schedule the shifts of its personnel, Captrain Netherlands makes use of RailApp, an application of a Dutch company specifically designed for the rail sector. “If we want to hire a driver from another carrier, RailApp is ideally suited to get that arranged and to exchange necessary information. It lets a carrier see in a digital overview whether all required items are fully and correctly available.”
Challenges when exchanging train drivers
Several challenges come into play when it comes to exchanging personnel, however, highlights Oomen. “The moment you exchange a driver and a driver from another company works hours for us, the law considers those hours worked as if he was actually employed by me. The transport is carried out under our licence, making us responsible for everything that takes place. So this driver’s professional competence file has to be in full order, there is a whole string of papers and documents attached to that.”
A digital solution makes that process a lot simpler. “By arranging these things through the app, I can also see and guarantee how many hours someone works. Temporary and self-employed workers naturally also have to comply with the Working Hours Act. Because this is properly tracked in the app, we run considerably less risk of hiring someone today who may also have worked overnight, which is not permitted under the Working Hours Act. Captrain has been using RailApp for more than five years, specifically for planning: for scheduling shifts for drivers. You can request, schedule and roster shifts and exchange information with Machinext or other third parties.”
A lot of documentation is needed to deploy drivers across borders, not only by country but also for specific routes. “A driver has to have separate training and certification for each type of locomotive, and also per country. This is why interchangeability is also so difficult, which is why a digital solution is so useful, because it records what certifications someone has, and what they can and are allowed to do”, says Oomen.
On top of this, there is also route knowledge, for which there are still different rules in the Netherlands and other countries. So before a driver is allowed to drive on a particular section of track, he must have been examined in it. “Once you pass this stamp with one of the carriers, it is valid with several carriers”.
Developments in Germany
In Germany, funding has been made available to develop a digital innovation to facilitate and promote the exchange of drivers. So far, deployment of drivers between different carriers has only worked in two ways, explains Bernhard Knierim, Transport Policy and Projects Advisor at Allianz pro Schiene, which unites more than 150 German railway sector companies and 24 non-profit organisations.
First, if transport companies do not have enough of their own drivers for their longer-term services, they hire drivers from other companies for a few months. Second, they also use companies that specialise as personal service providers for individual services if there are not enough of their own drivers for that. This must be done days in advance. “We want to make it possible to also be able to assign drivers directly between carriers. In addition, we also want to make this possible faster, because shifts change very quickly every day due to delays – which can mean several hours of delay for freight trains”, says Knierim.
There is no system for this yet in Germany, so the digital solution WILSON.Share was developed, for which Allianz pro Schiene, Menlo79 GmbH, ENGINEC, SCI Verkehr GmbH and Trainbutlers GmbH & Co. KG have joined forces. The project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Digital Affairs and Transport and is being tested this year with a few companies as part of the pilot phase. The goal is that it is ready for the market by the end of 2024. Now it is also extended to shunting and wagon examiner services, shares Knierim. “There is also a quite high demand in this field, and the companies are very interested in this”.
In doing so, there are several challenges. For example, privacy must be guarded – because of legal regulations and because transportation companies do not want their competitors to have too much information, says Knierim. Also, some companies may fear losing their drivers or giving their competitors too much information. “We need to make sure that drivers have all the information they need and can safely drive the other company’s train – safety is the first priority here.”
“We are already further along with this in the Netherlands than in Germany. In general, rail itself is still not very innovative, technology innovation is behind compared to other sectors and often goes slowly. You do find innovation in railway in peripheral platforms, such as with an app. You see that these kinds of platforms help us considerably”, concludes Raoul Oomen.