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Fast Trackers II

Network Rail and Mott MacDonald’s engineering outreach programme was even bigger and better on its 2019 return


A looming skills gap in rail engineering continues to hang over the industry’s head, one that will drive up costs, lead to productivity losses and hit the national economy. 

It’s not going to be overcome overnight, but what is being done about it?

One of the biggest programmes for students aged 16 and up is Fast Trackers, an outreach scheme that aims to encourage learners to pursue a career in engineering or, even better, rail. Organised between Network Rail engineering graduates, Mott MacDonald and their industry and education partners, Fast Trackers was born out of 2018's Year of Engineering campaign to target students from areas with the lowest uptake of further education.

Building on the inaugural event’s success, organisers expanded Fast Trackers’ reach from two to seven regions for 2019, engaging with more than 300 students. Lancashire, London, the Midlands, the North East, Scotland, Staffordshire and Yorkshire all hosted their own three-day regional heats and the winners from those were invited to a grand final in Birmingham between July 2-4.


A taste of engineering

Regional heats allowed the teenagers to explore a variety of work that engineers undertake in the rail sector. Across the programme activities included:

  • Gearing up in PPE to learn how to remove fastenings and replace rails using tools and lifting equipment at Newcastle College’s test track;
  • An exclusive tour of St Pancras station’s innovative design features by Jay Newton, head of stations engineering at HS1;
  • Getting up close and personal with a diesel as well as an electric-powered CAF train at Alstom’s state-of-the-art maintenance centre in Liverpool;
  • Designing a HS2-inspired high-speed line between Birmingham and London as well as redesigning London Euston to accommodate it – the main challenge for participants at the regional level;
  • Sitting in the ‘driver’s seat’ to test the University of Birmingham’s railway control and operations simulator.

The challenge

After topping their regional heats, teams were tasked with a new engineering challenge in the final leg: redesigning Birmingham New Street station. 

The 40 students spent the best part of their first day at the National College for High Speed Rail, where they learnt about ideas such as sustainability, BIM and pedestrian modelling, and finished the day with a list to the subject station to see how it could be improved. 

After exchanging ideas and putting pen to paper on the middle day, the five teams pitched their ideas to a panel of industry leaders – including HS1 chief executive Dyan Crowther, who oversaw the station’s redesign in 2015 – on the final day at the University of Birmingham’s School of Engineering. 

But before they took their moments in the spotlight, Cathy Travers, managing director of Mott MacDonald in the UK and Europe, who was one of the judges, shared her own career story.

Cathy grew up in Blackburn as the youngest of five siblings and began her journey to where she is today thanks to encouragement from her mum. 

“She was an English teacher and she said ‘Cathy, you want to go and do engineering because it is a chance to problem solve, it’s a chance to see what you’ve created and develop but it’s also a chance to change people’s lives’”, she said. “So, I thought what the hell, I’ll give it a go.”

She initially failed her A-Level maths but returned to restudy, which enabled her to go to university to study civil and structural engineering. Fast forward to the present day and Cathy now manages a £1 billion business with 8,000 employees.

“My mum was right, it really is a fantastic career, you can change people’s lives, and I hope you’ve seen a little bit of that through the work you’ve been doing on Birmingham station and actually how what we do in this industry can make a difference to people’s lives.”

Drawing on her more than 30 years’ experience as an engineer, Cathy then left the students with some words of wisdom. 

“The other massive lesson I’ve learnt is just believe in yourself. You can achieve whatever you want to achieve. It really comes down to believing in yourself and having that confidence to go for it.”

Fresh thinking

One by one the teams shared the results from their two days of research and brainstorming on issues such as sustainability and enhancing customer experience.

Almost all of the students agreed that navigating around Birmingham New Street is not easy, whether that’s to find your platform, the most appropriate exit or the reception. 

Solutions included dedicated mobile apps for the station, which would integrate wayfinding functions with real-time train information, holographic 3D maps that would pop out of the floor and focus on the user’s location, as well as colour-coded lines on the floor to guide passengers to platforms. 

They also developed an understanding of why emissions are so bad at stations, and sought to tackle train emissions through the introduction of electric and hydrogen powered trains and reduce overall station emissions by encouraging cycling and introducing an emissions zone in the surrounding area. 

The notion that stations are more than transit space was grasped too. Gyms, nurseries, entertainment areas and even a homeless shelter was integrated into community-centric plans. The group from Manchester planned to harness energy from passengers through Pavegen technology and on-site gyms, allowing them to restore their energy with sleep pods before setting off for their destination. 

The eventual winner was the five-man team from Birmingham, who came suited and booted in ties and blazers. One of their standout ideas was to remove ticket barriers entirely and to instead rely on near field technology because of the impact barriers have on congestion during peak times, although they realised the limitations of rolling this out without putting revenue safeguarding procedures in place. 

Future prospects

A graduation-style ceremony proved a fitting end to the Fast Trackers programme. 

It was evident the students had invested much time and thought into the programme, wracking their brains to come up with solutions to modern day problems. 

They displayed vital skills of communication, collaboration, teamwork, organisation and critical thinking and would all find a place working in the rail sector. 

Via feedback, organisers were able to track that more students had considered engineering-based career afterwards than before, more were aware of transport sector career options and more were considering a career in rail.

The industry will be hoping that graduate programmes and the real-deal graduations await them in the years ahead. 

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