Get on board with rail

Five years old? Want to be a train driver? Then rail is for you. Otherwise, you might never have considered it as a career.

Yet listen to Mark Wallace, 25, a mechanical engineering and French graduate from Sheffield University, who is in the third year of the graduate recruitment scheme at international rail technology consultants, Interfleet Technology. He wasn't originally interested in rail and can see why a sector such as automotive or aerospace may look like a more attractive option.

"I feel that had I gone into aerospace I'd probably spend many years working on one small component without ever seeing the bigger picture. There's a lot of variety in rail and at Interfleet you move from one project to the next, with two rarely being the same."

Wallace's first position of responsibility has seen him working on a £9m project to procure conditioning monitoring equipment, which relays information about the train's health and condition to a remote location. "It's been a very challenging project to date and certainly stretches me," he says. "Next I'll probably move to a more hands-on engineering project within the same team."

Kate Barratt, 25, a human factors engineer at Tube Lines who completed a combined honours degree in human kinetics and ergonomics at Rhodes University in South Africa, says she similarly entered the industry by default but now praises its variety and challenge. Tube Lines has a 30-year contract with London Underground to invest, maintain and upgrade the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines of the network. Barratt is undertaking human factors work on the new moving block automated signalling system being installed on the Jubilee Line. "This new signalling system will reduce the gaps between trains, allowing a faster service with a higher capacity on our network," she says, adding: "Improvements in journey time capability are constantly being strived for and with this comes the need to create as effective and efficient a rail network as possible, which can bring plenty of challenges."

The future projects

The next decade could see some of the biggest improvements and upgrades to the railway network that we've seen for many years and, with them, a mass of engineering and logistical challenges that have to be met.

  • Crossrail, the new £15.9bn railway for London and the South-East, will be the biggest civil engineering project in Europe. Its significance to the country cannot be underestimated, bringing an additional 1.5 million people within an hour's commute of the UK capital's main business districts. It's estimated that around 14,000 people will be employed at the peak of construction, projected to be between 2013 and 2015. Crossrail says it is too early to discuss graduate recruitment plans but it has already shown a major commitment to investing in skills and training future engineering talent. Earlier this year it opened the Crossrail Tunneling Academy, which will provide training on the key skills required to work in and around a tunnel excavation, and it is supporting a new Master of Engineering course in Embedded Systems at the University of York, providing £60,000 pa in sponsorship.
  • In August this year, Network Rail unveiled the preferred route for High Speed Two, a proposal to create a new 200mph high-speed line to the Midlands, North-West and Scotland that would cut the journey time between Scotland and London to just over two hours. (Although there was rather more sobering news later the same week, when Network Rail also announced its intention to cut 1800 maintenance jobs by 2011.)
  • Other major projects already underway include the continued upgrading of the Thameslink infrastructure; remodelling the Reading rail hub; rebuilding Birmingham New Street; and a number of upgrades and rebuild projects in Scotland and on the London Underground.

How to get into rail

Rail agencies, backed by studies such as Project Brunel, say that there is already a skills gap in the industry. Derek Brown, managing director of recruitment agency Technology Resourcing, which runs, says that if High Speed Two went ahead, and overlapped with Crossrail, the industry could see a serious drain on resources. He also foresees skills shortages in the specialist railway disciplines such as signalling and electrification and believes that anyone with these skills has a long potential career ahead. His advice to those interested in the rail industry is, ideally, to secure an internship, but at the very least to demonstrate a basic understanding of how the railways operate, with the associated terminology and industry standards. "It often remains difficult for engineers to first break into rail, with many job specs stating “railway industry experience required/preferred”, due primarily to the significant regulation that surrounds this," he says.

Regardless of any forthcoming projects, Network Rail currently invests £800m in Britain's tracks and £390m in bridges, viaducts, tunnels and embankments every year. Adrian Thomas, head of resourcing, says that combined engineering disciplines and project management will continue to make up half of its graduate intake. He stresses that the company recruits for real jobs rather than just a training scheme. "Graduates have a real desk and a real telephone that rings," he says. "We're not hiring people to a scheme. We make sure the vacancies are there before we recruit."

However, he adds that the best performers at assessment centres are those who have thought through what the training will offer them and whether they're suited to it. "If people did some research, they would know themselves if they were right for the role," he says. "News stories about graduate schemes this year have meant that some are responding with a scattergun approach to applying and firing off their CV everywhere."

The skills for the job

If a graduate finds the right scheme for them, then they can expect a thorough development programme. Mark Wallace says that one of the most valuable aspects of his training was the variety of placements where Interfleet operates. He spent time at two depots: National Express East Anglia in Norwich and Freightliner in Leeds. He says he got stuck into a number of jobs and it can be "dirty, awkward and heavy work", like changing components on a massive Class 66 Diesel, but the insight was invaluable. Placements can be taken anywhere in the world, including Australia. Kylee Clayson, learning and development manager at Interfleet, says that working at a consultancy means graduates can potentially get involved in anything that happens in the rail industry from design and concept through to incident investigation. They have to remember, though, that they will be in a client-facing role and therefore need to demonstrate a wider skill set than just technical expertise. "They must have good communication and inter-personal skills, and honesty and integrity is key for us," she says. "They have to be able to deliver and should be very organised and priority-driven."

The level of project work and therefore the opportunity for innovation that takes place in the rail industry is another benefit for graduates and this isn't confined to consultancies. Tube Lines has two delivery arms: an operations directorate that looks after the day-to-day work and then a project directorate which is involved in much of the upgrade work. Graduates can get involved in all aspects of a project, explains Ron Surrock, functional manager at Tube Lines. "They have the chance to take something from design to implementation to close-out to maintenance and get engaged in all aspects of engineering. You get to see what you've designed go into operation. The whole lifestyle of the process," he says, adding that one of the ways it promotes innovation is through its Change Challenge Cup, run every quarter. It takes a similar approach to the TV programme Dragon's Den, where employees come up with ideas which are judged against criteria such as financial benefit or increases in efficiency. "I recall a recent idea for a rain wash that used recycled rain water," says Surrock.

Paul Dryden, 24, who graduated from the University of Warwick with a MEng (Hons) in civil engineering, has been at Tube Lines for two years and is enthusiastic about the project he's working on, describing it as "quite special".  He's part of the Green Park Step Free Access project, which aims to make Green Park Underground station in London more accessible to those with impaired mobility. "This primarily involves extending the ticket hall under Green Park itself and sinking a new lift shaft down to the Victoria Line platforms and interconnecting with the other lines," he explains.

Like Wallace and Barratt, Dryden didn't set out to work in rail and says he still doesn't know where he'd like to be in 10 years' time. The attraction of Tube Lines was that he could see it would give him a great breadth of experience and keep his options open for the future. "I imagine that my experience at Tube Lines must be pretty indicative of the way in which all the engineering disciplines interact with the rail industry," he says. "If, like me, you aren't too sure which area of engineering you'd like to work in, then I would say you can't go wrong with choosing rail given the variety of work involved."

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