Rail Industry Focus

17.06.15

Inspiring the next generation at iRail 2015

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 15

Adam Hewitt reports from an event showcasing what the rail industry has to offer to potential engineers of the future.

Nearly 100 school and college students visited the Derby Roundhouse for the sixth annual iRail event in June, learning more about the rail industry and competing in design challenges.

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The students visited Bombardier’s train manufacturing facility in Derby and Network Rail’s East Midlands Control Centre to find out more about different aspects of the railway sector.

RTM has been supporting the event since the beginning, and was there again this year as professionals from across the industry – led by young graduate engineers whose experiences are directly relevant to the schoolchildren making decisions about the future – helped inspire and engage the youngsters.

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‘We’ve lost a generation’

Neil Harvey, general manager of the Derby & Derbyshire Rail Forum, was involved in the very first iRail in 2010 when he was communications director at Bombardier in Derby. He was back at iRail 2015 as a judge. He told RTM: “All 144 of our member companies in rail recognise the skills gap that we’ve got in the rail industry. We’ve lost a generation, basically. We are keen to support anything that will help encourage people – schoolchildren, college students, graduates – to come into rail as a profession.

“Rail – and engineering generally – has fallen out of favour. We need to get that back;  to engage with people at this age, to show them that engineering generally and rail in particular is an exciting career path. It’s an innovative industry.”

On the day, 11 teams of year nine students (13 and 14 year olds) from schools across Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire took part, as well as a group of engineering students from Derby College.

The school teams competed in a Dragons’ Den style competition across two strands – one set of teams focusing on train design, and one on signalling and communications systems.

The winners of the two strands – West Park School and John Flamsteed Community School – then went head-to-head, giving presentations in front of a group of high-profile judges.

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Having started the day with very little knowledge of the railways, the teams had learned enough during the course of the event to pepper their presentations with concepts like axle counters, level crossing safety, carbon-fibre bodyshells and regenerative braking.

West Park came out on top, impressing judges with how well they grasped the task and used information gleaned from their tours earlier in the day and from the experts in the room to put together a smart presentation.

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Chloe Wright, from the winning team, told RTM: “I found it really fun. My nerves were really running before we did the presentation, but once I was out there, it gave me loads of confidence. It felt really good to win.

“I’d consider a career in engineering now. I really wanted to be a scientist before, but I’m more engineering and science now. It really interested me.”

Another year nine student on the winning team, James Hewitt, said: “The tour was really good, and it helped us with our challenge. I’ve found out a lot about the railways today, such as how the trains are made, and why.”

New ideas

Sami Ghebache, a FirstGroup graduate engineer who spends a lot of time at Ardwick depot in Manchester with First TransPennine Express, was one of the mentors for the youngsters. He told RTM: “There’s a lot of really good ideas, some of them quite out-of-the-box. They’re not as ‘institutionalised’ as the rest of us who’ve been in the industry for years, so they can come at things from a totally different angle. It’s been really interesting to see their approach.”

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Some of these more off-the-wall ideas included expandable carriages to cope with peak-time crowding, lowering tracks across the country to allow double-decker carriages without demolishing bridges and tunnels, having on-board systems powered by solar panels covering the roofs of trains, and replacing problem- and theft-prone cables with wi-fi. Train drivers will also need to watch out for this new generation, many of whom seemed keen on replacing them with computers to optimise running speeds and braking distances and allow instant decision-making.

Ghebache, who was helping out at iRail for the first time, said: “It isn’t the best-promoted industry unfortunately, but we’re taking great strides in improving that, especially in getting them interested at an early age in STEM subjects. It’s about showing them what engineering really is – a lot of students these days don’t fully appreciate what engineers do. They don’t necessarily see it as problem-solving, or coming up with new ideas – they see it as playing with tools. It’s so much more.”

Ghebache’s own story contains some positives for the industry’s reputation, however. As a recent graduate in 2012, he researched engineering careers that would be sustainable, allow him to develop and learn a lot. Rail came out on top. “The rail industry is known for having long careers – there’s lot of people who never leave! I looked up different grad schemes, and rail was known to be good for letting you develop your skills, and letting you go and explore how the whole industry works. FirstGroup have been good for letting me go to other companies and spend time with them to learn each side of the industry, which puts me a in good position in meetings or when decisions are being made, because I can see things from everyone’s point of view.”

Neil Harvey agreed, telling us: “People have this vision – kids, teachers and careers advisors alike – that going into engineering is about going into a dirty, grimy workshop and using hammers and welding torches. It’s not like that at all.”

Raising awareness of rail

Paul Bailey, assistant headteacher and technology teacher at Allestree Woodlands School, Derby, said students from the school have been involved in every iRail so far.

“Within Derby city, having so much technology and engineering around us, we think it’s good experience for the students. It raises awareness, as quite a few of them will go into jobs in those industries, whether through university, or through apprenticeships and things.”

He said the students did not know quite what to expect when they arrived at iRail. “It takes them a little bit of time to get going, to realise there are experts around the room who they can tap into. They’re so used to sitting on their phones or looking at the internet, but not actually going to talk to people.”

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Chung Ho, an on-site design engineer with Atkins, working on the Crossrail project as part of the Arup-Atkins JV, helped out at iRail last year when she was based in Derby. She enjoyed it and decided to pitch in again this year.

She said: “Some of the students are really excited – maybe 13 is before the cynicism kicks in! This is a good age to engage them at. I really like the concept of iRail, with companies around the students, so they can approach them for help. It’s a very good opportunity.

“The tours are fantastic too, it’s the second time I’ve been and it was still good. Last year it was a bit quiet, but this year at Bombardier it was really busy, with the production of the London Underground trains.”

In his closing talk, Paul Jones from event organisers By Design told the schoolchildren that the companies in the room are always looking for new recruits and that engineering is a great option for their own future.

In the evening, iRail continued its tradition of hosting a ‘distinguished lecture’, this year given by Chris Green, describing some of his experiences in a long railway career at British Rail, ScotRail, Virgin, Eurotunnel and elsewhere.

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