As students around the country begin their undergraduate degree studies, Professor Simon Iwnicki, director of the Institute of Railway Research at the University of Huddersfield and interim chair of ‘Routes into Rail’ – a cross- industry body which aims to increase the number of young people joining the industry, explains why they should consider a career in rail.
Each year thousands of students graduate from colleges and universities but few of these currently consider a career in the railway industry. Efforts are now underway to try to change this.
Many people working for railway companies didn’t originally plan this as their career, but once inside the industry they find it to be challenging and rewarding, and stay.
It was the same for me. After graduation, I was working as a maintenance engineer when I was offered the opportunity to carry out a PhD looking into the behaviour of railway vehicles with rubber tyres. I applied for the PhD and am very glad that I did. I developed computer models and built a test rig to validate them. It was challenging but great fun.
I would thoroughly recommend a railway career to anyone, it’s an amazing community of enthusiastic and able people who solve interesting problems every day.
Attracting the brightest
Interest in the railways has seen some ups and downs over the years. Working for a railway company used to be seen as a job for life and could attract the very brightest young people. Then with the growth of other transport modes and the Beeching cuts it was seen as a declining industry with a poor reputation and the butt of many jokes.
Now though, with HS2 and Crossrail, a renaissance in passenger numbers, improved reliability and the best safety record in Europe, it is starting to get a better image. But there is still a lot to do.
The same dramatic increase in passenger numbers is leading to an acute skills shortage in the industry, exacerbated by an ageing workforce and a significant increase in technology levels required by the equipment used in modern vehicles and infrastructure.
If this is not addressed then the railways will not be able to continue to meet the levels of performance now expected of them.
Fragmentation in the industry and the loss of national graduate schemes and recruitment programmes means that the skills shortage is hitting the smaller companies first and hardest. The bigger players – Network Rail and TfL for example – are more visible and therefore insulated to some extent, but
it doesn’t make the problem less real or mean that the whole industry won’t suffer if the issues are not addressed. Even the largest companies are now finding it difficult to fill some specialist posts.
The industry is trying to tackle the skills shortage in a number of ways and some of these are being coordinated by Routes into Rail, which is supported by RSSB, RRUKA, the Young Rail Professionals and many of the professional institutions.
Routes into Rail has already produced a hugely successful video ‘What I’ve always wanted’ and a revived programme of visits, which aims to meet students in all of the nearly 50 RRUKA universities with presentations from YRP.
Another activity which has become part of the calendar for young engineers is the ‘Railway Challenge’ competition set up by the IMechE’s Railway Division. This competition is now in its fifth year and requires teams of engineering students from universities or apprentices from industry to design and build a locomotive. OK, it’s a miniature gauge loco, but at around 500-800kg and containing all of the systems of a full-size version, it provides a real challenge for
the teams. It also means that we now have a growing number of new converts who realise that modern railway systems are complicated and challenging and have had a taste of designing, building and operating a railway vehicle.
It could be argued that someone studying engineering is already on the right track and that we need to start earlier, so the Smallpeice Trust railway courses run at Birmingham and Huddersfield Universities and attended by several hundred school students are reaching out to those who have not yet decided on their career. The students have lectures from railway experts from university and industry and also get hands-on experience of several practical railway problems.
Through this type of activity, young people are starting to realise that a railway career in the UK is interesting, challenging, exciting and rewarding. Slowly but surely the message is starting to get out.