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High-speed education: the college at the heart of Britain’s new multi-billion pound industry

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Nick Kataria, 32, has turned his back on a long career in the travel industry to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer. Leaving the family business and quitting work entirely, he is one of 150 learners of different ages and backgrounds that have joined the National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR) to establish a career in Britain’s new multi-billion pound high-speed rail industry.

‘Engineering is always something I’ve been interested in but never really had the chance or opportunity to take. I saw this one and I took it,’ says Nick, who isn’t put off by the 50-mile commute he faces each day to get from Stafford to NCHR’s Birmingham campus. ‘I know what opportunities and prospects are available here.’


Nick’s story is just one example of many who are being trained or retrained to support the development of HS2. The not-for-profit organisation Engineering UK estimates that Britain will need 182,000 new engineers every year until 2022. Currently there is an annual shortfall of 69,000. When you add the fact that 20 per cent of engineers are over 55 years old into the equation, you start to understand the scale of the skills shortage and the part NCHSR will play in reducing it.

But Nick hasn’t enrolled at NCHSR to make up the numbers, he sees it as a pathway into a successful career in Britain and abroad; he sees it as a golden ticket. Nick says he wants to play a part in the construction of HS2 and then become a high-speed ambassador for Britain on the world stage. ‘With HS2 going on for the next five to 10 years, we will be UK-based but then once that project is finished the world is our oyster.’


NCHSR is the third and largest of five national colleges to open. Created by the Government but led by employers, the colleges have been set up to develop specialist skills for producing Britain’s future workforce. As well as NCHSR there are dedicated colleges for nuclear, onshore oil and gas, digital skills and creative and cultural industries.

Nick Kataria

Following a consultation process, Birmingham and Doncaster were chosen as the sites for NCHSR in 2014 from a shortlist that also included Derby and Manchester. Birmingham was chosen for being at the heart of HS2 and Doncaster because of its established links to rail industry businesses. In addition to £40 million from the Department for Education, the college has received £12 million investment from the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and Sheffield City Region LEP as well as £10 million in industry donations.

In September 2017, the college had a soft launch when the first students began – or as college CEO Clair Mowbray put it, ‘when our heartbeat started to happen.’

In addition to the initial cohort of students, a further intake is expected in January and then April, with the college catering for up to 1,200 once it reaches full capacity.

Students in Birmingham will largely focus on civil engineering and command, control and communication while the Doncaster site will specialise in track systems, rolling stock and power.

Both sites have been kitted out with cutting-edge technology, including virtual reality training on board two Eurostar power cars, an augmented reality classroom and a dedicated BIM cave.


More than 40 companies came together to help shape the college’s curriculum – in particular companies that have an international reach such as Siemens, Alstom and Colas Rail – specifying the skills they need in return for sending apprentices there, committing to take from the talent pool and to mentor full-time learners.  Experts from a wide range of companies will form the core of the teaching staff alongside permanent teachers from the education sector and former engineers turned teachers.

Some of the students at the college will be undertaking a one-year Certificate of Higher Education in High Speed Rail and Infrastructure – the UK’s first, which has been accredited by Sheffield Hallam. This level 4 qualification provides an initial introduction to the high-speed rail sector followed by a choice of seven specialisms.


Clair Mowbray said in the college’s brochure that one of her priorities is to attract as diverse a group of students as possible – to create a human legacy as well as a physical one. In the industry, 94 per cent of rail engineers are white and 92 per cent are male. However, a third of college applications were from females and almost 50 per cent from those from different ethnic backgrounds.

She also described the first students as the pioneers who will shape NCHSR for future learners. Clair added, ‘The learning they will experience here at the national college is not available anywhere in the world. A college that is dedicated to high-speed rail, rail and infrastructure modernisation. ‘We are setting ourselves up to be agile and flexible to respond to that demand to make sure we are tailored to what the industry wants.’


The college’s opening is the latest milestone in the development of HS2 in Birmingham and the country. Andrew Cleaves, lead board director for employment and skills, Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP, described the college as ‘the first tangible sign of the huge potential that HS2 offers Greater Birmingham.’ He added, ‘The new campus in Birmingham will be a catalyst to upskilling and raising the aspirations of this region’s young population. It will equip them with the tools required to build, operate and maintain a 21st century railway, delivering further growth and benefits to Greater Birmingham and beyond.’