Forget the waves, Britain ruled the rails throughout the 19th century. Driven by innovators such as George Stephenson, Great Britain pioneered the first steam locomotive and built thousands of miles of railway through major cities and rolling countryside – sometimes beneath them too. Britain led the world.
During the 20th century, the rise of motor vehicles saw priorities shift and rail funding cut. With little demand to sustain the skills base, the supply of skilled tunnel workers and engineers diminished.
The decline of the UK’s coal industry significantly contributed to this loss.
A NEW GENERATION
With the onset of mega projects like Crossrail and HS2, the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) was established in September 2011 to train a new generation of highly skilled underground construction workers.
Over the course of almost seven years, the academy has provided training to more than 20,000 people. This includes continued professional development courses to those already in the industry and apprentices, 98 per cent of which have gained full-time employment in their chosen career with starting salaries of up to £18,000.
Founder Crossrail was the main beneficiary from the pipeline of talent to begin with.
Building the central core of 42km bored tunnels would not have been possible, explained deputy director of operations Danny Fox, who oversees recruitment and training, had resources and the few individuals skilled in underground construction and tunnelling not been centralised through TUCA.
With construction of the Elizabeth line almost complete ahead of the December 2018 launch, ownership of TUCA was passed to its parent company Transport for London (TfL), which awarded Prospects College of Advanced Technology (PROCAT) a contract to run the college in March. The arrangement will last for five years.
‘It is absolutely vital that any training establishment keeps up with the cutting-edge developments in training and skills,’ said Danny. ‘And I’m delighted with the development work that is going on here – TUCA has the best [tunnelling and under construction] skills training you can get anywhere in the country, and indeed probably Europe.’
THE NEW CHAPTER
With Crossrail nearing completion and PROCAT onboard the college is diversifying. Moving ahead PROCAT has relocated its specialist training in rail engineering – courses such as rail traction and rolling stock, signalling and telecommunications – and construction civil engineering from its Basildon campus, Essex, to TUCA in Ilford, east London. As part of this move, PROCAT’s test train track is being moved to TUCA too.
‘There was a sense that TUCA had come to its natural end,’ said PROCAT chairman David Sherlock at the academy’s relaunch event in September. ‘It was set up originally for Crossrail, which is essentially now finished, so this is giving TUCA a degree of permanency, a long-term vision and role which it didn’t previously have and which it needs – it is a fabulous facility.
‘This is going to be the next chapter for it, and I hope a rather more diverse one.’
Crossrail isn’t the only huge infrastructure project that needs a supply of skilled construction and tunnel workers. There is also the Northern line extension, Crossrail 2 and HS2 as well as non-rail projects like Thames Tideway and new National Grid electricity cable tunnels under London.
Designed by Capita Symonds and constructed by VolkerFitzpatrick, the purpose-built college building is almost entirely windowless and cuts an imposing figure in the surrounding area with its black and red exterior.
On the ground floor, the college has a number of spacious workshops covering electrical engineering, a concrete testing laboratory and huge TfL workshops, which are under construction, as well as an impressive tunnel mock-up. Upstairs there are more conventional classrooms, computer rooms and a virtual reality suite, which allows students to experience skills such as electrical installation, to better prepare them for the workplace.
The marriage between Crossrail and TUCA might be over but the two will keep a number of important links. Crossrail’s backup control centre – in case its Romford centre breaks down – is situated on the campus and it will be conducting its maintenance and station staff training there thanks to an Elizabeth line station mock-up that is currently being built. And, of course, there’s a Morgan Sindall-branded TBM that sits in the car park.
THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN
PROCAT is a further education college which specialises in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing and has sites in Canvey Island and Basildon. In TUCA, the further education college believes it has something it can be particularly proud of.
‘It’s like the jewel in the crown for PROCAT,’ explained TUCA principal Ros Parker, who has been at the academy for a year.
Ros said that PROCAT would not be able to do what it is able to achieve without its industry partners, and praised the collaboration between itself and businesses to align to what the industry needs. At TUCA, the likes of Atkins, Thales, Bombardier, Balfour Beatty, telent, Keolis-Amey Docklands, TfL, Crossrail, Virgin Trains East Coast and Eurostar all support the academy in one way or another. Thales, for example, supplies the equipment for the academy’s test track and many use the facility to train apprentices and staff.
Working underground may put off some applicants – especially the claustrophobic – but PROCAT chair David Sherlock said there are many reasons why youngsters should pursue careers in the field. One of which is the chance to join a field in which Britain has a long history and contribute to the resurgence of a traditional skill. He said, ‘This is rebuilding some of that with an international career in mind – and a highly paid one at that.’
As work on Europe’s largest infrastructure project comes to a close, TUCA is evolving to meet the industry’s needs and construct a legacy of its own.
With many more thousands of young engineers to be developed, who knows, we might one day see the next George Stephenson pass through its doors.
Written by Stewart Thorpe
Photos courtesy of Ten