One speaker researched the speeches of past presidents to see how many predictions have come true, and while it has often taken much longer than expected to achieve change, either due to a lack of funding or the difficulty in getting new technology accepted, most of the forecasts made have become reality. But nobody foresaw the looming shortage of signalling engineers which threatens to derail the modernisation of existing railways and the construction of new lines.

Mr Will Scott of Invensys Rail highlighted some of the challenges in recruiting and retaining sufficient signalling engineers. Due to the age profile of signalling engineers, he believes we have a maximum of 10 years before we reach a crisis point where there are insufficient engineers to meet our needs. It is not just that engineers are getting older and we are failing to recruit sufficient young engineers, there has also been a brain drain from the railway industry which is exacerbating the problem.

There are already signs that the shortage of signalling engineers is having an effect. Signalling engineers rarely retire - they either quickly join the growing ranks of consultants or are snapped up by other railways or manufacturers desperate for qualified and experienced staff. Scott would like to see a campaign to entice engineers who have left the railways to return, but if we don't address some of the reasons why they jumped ship in the first place it will be a very expensive and difficult exercise.

The cyclic nature of project approvals in the past resulted in a lot of skilled people leaving rail for more stable industries each time there was a contraction in the number of new projects, but when the market picked up there were insufficient engineers available leading to a mad dash to recruit and train people. Short-term decision-making can have long-term effects.

We need to create a career path for engineers and to make them feel valued. A lot of railways and companies only recognise and reward managers, but not all engineers and technicians make good managers. How many managers do we need, in any case?

Despite the glamour of high-speed trains, rail transport still has a poor image in the minds of young people with many regarding it as a Victorian industry. While semaphore signals and relays still exist, rail is making great technical strides and this message needs to reach students when they are starting to make their career choices. It is also the complexity of the system which makes a career in rail so interesting.

But here lies another problem. Railway people used to move around frequently during their careers enriching their skills base and acquiring a broad working knowledge of how the railway functions as a system. This was a tremendous aid to good decision-making, but this freedom to move around has largely come to an end for several reasons.

The separation of infrastructure from operations is one barrier to job mobility, as is the trend towards fragmentation through the reorganisation of railways or companies into smaller divisions or subsidiaries.

Another barrier to mobility is the increasing complexity of technology which forces more specialisation. This leads to people becoming blinkered with a very narrow view of their small field of activity, which is bad for their career development, increases the risk that they will move to another industry rather than look for other jobs within rail, and can hamper their ability to make sound judgements.

A lack of knowledge of how the railway functions as a whole and what the real needs are is one of the reasons why systems are becoming excessively complicated or provide more functions than are necessary to do the job.

This loss of knowledge goes right to the top of railways and suppliers. There is a serious lack of railway expertise at the pinnacle of many railways, whose board members and senior managers are increasingly lawyers, accountants and human resources specialists, with too few engineers and operators.

This can result in some very strange decisions. For example, one infrastructure manager was proposing to drastically reduce the number of switches at a major station to cut maintenance costs without considering the consequences for operational flexibility and reliability. Bad decision-making will damage rail's ability to prosper and develop, just at a time when the tide is turning in its favour.

To sum up, railways need to sell themselves better to attract more graduates. Training needs to be broader to give people a good overall knowledge of how railways function as a whole and what their role is. The military should be a fertile ground for recruiting engineers as people have a good technical grounding, are experienced in getting technology to work out in the field, and are well disciplined.

Finally we need to find ways for people to move around the industry more freely so that they can have rewarding careers and gain a wide range of experience.

You can't build intuition into the technology, after all knowledge resides within people not systems.