Rail Industry Focus

01.08.15

Digital future for Southeastern

Source: RTM Aug/Sep 15

RTM talks to Southeastern’s director of engineering Mark Johnson about a new graduate scheme aimed at students from an IT rather than traditional engineering background.

Southeastern has launched a new scheme to take on bright IT graduates from the universities of Greenwich and Kent to start doing more with the masses of data the operator produces and turn it into useable information.

The TOC says it is the first operator “to recognise the need for graduates from computer science backgrounds in order to continue to provide the best services we can for our passengers”.

The scheme begins this year, with two students winning a one-year placement, with “likely” long-term employment once they finish their study. Each will get bursary funding, a salary and training, on top of the valuable experience.

Mark Johnson, director of engineering at Southeastern, told us: “As with a lot of operators, we have found over recent years that we collect hundreds of thousands of data entries and pieces of information from our vehicles, both remotely and downloaded from the train, far more than any other transport industry. But we rarely utilise this data to its full potential; if you take the total dataset, we’re only using 10-15% of what we’re collecting. There’s far more we can do with it.

“When you start to look at the skillsets you need to work quickly and do more effective things with this data, you need to be looking at the computer science technologies.”

Sponsoring new talent

The trial version of this scheme involves two undergrads being ‘sponsored’ by Southeastern in their third and fourth years, with their third year spent working at the company. The graduates then commit to work with the company for a minimum of two years after graduation. 

They would be working on both internal projects and external-facing software aimed at passengers, Johnson said. “Once you’ve got the data communication lines to the vehicle, you can utilise the data coming off the trains not only to support the identification of failures before they happen – looking at wear rates and at enhanced maintenance regimes – but also to review incidents in real time and establish the best way to recover, which will improve performance.

“Sensors on our rolling stock mean we’re now able to identify some track defects, and alert Network Rail to the infrastructure degradation in their assets before they fail, further supporting performance. As we get more interactive with our applications, integrational ticketing and real-time information, we can provide this information flow to our customers as well.

“It’s about trying to make a step change, and bring us up-to-date with modern-day expectations.”

Shaking off the stigma

Mark Johnson resize 635772429793489420Johnson began his own career with Southeastern as an apprentice around the time of rail privatisation, when there was a lot of surface stigma associated with the rail industry, he said. “But when I actually peeled back the skin and started looking at it, the rail industry offered great diversity, flexibility, a skillset you can pick up and move around the UK if you wanted to – or further afield.”

He said “misconceptions” still stick to today’s industry, especially the engineering aspect of it, with not enough people grasping the real opportunities in rail and the level of investment that is going on. “I say to people: if you’re really career driven, the opportunity is there and the support is there. But you have to want it yourself.”

Southeastern says it is serious about fostering the talents of computer science graduates in conjunction with its usual intake of mechanical engineering graduates to stay ahead of the curve.

The graduates, across whatever discipline, are “vital to the future success of Southeastern as a leading operator”, Johnson said.

Johnson thinks the rail industry is experiencing a shift similar to that which has happened in aviation, where ‘fly by wire’ systems can replace conventional mechanical controls with purely electronic interfaces. “The computer science aspect is a bit left-field for the rail industry as a whole, most of which is looking into counteracting the age profile and demand for new skillsets in engineering sectors. That’s good, but I feel we’ve fundamentally missed a key aspect in rolling stock, what you could call ‘drive by wire’ technology. It’s a very complex beast with a highly demanding skillset.”

Discussing the graduate scheme, he explained: “This is a voyage of discovery for us, it’s an area we haven’t moved into previously. We did quite a bit of research with local and some national universities to look at what sort of benefits some of the other industries out there have had from [similar graduate schemes].

“This, to me, will be a long-term partnership, so every year we can pick up another few graduates. There’s benefits for them, there’s benefits for us and ultimately, it should be a continued evolution that takes us forward.”

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