iRail: investing in the future

The rail industry today faces many challenges, one of those being the skills gap in high- speed rail. However, events like iRail are doing their part in engaging young people and investing the future workforce of our railways. RTM’s Daniel Broadley reports.

After a successful event back in March at Pride Park Stadium (home of Derby County FC), iRail returned for its second instalment of 2018 as students from around the region were treated to a tour of Birmingham’s National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR) and Birmingham New Street station, along with appearances from public and private sector companies.

The first part of the day took half the students on a tour of the college whilst the other half went to Birmingham New Street, before swapping over. The college tour demonstrated the cutting-edge technology not only in use in the high-speed rail industry, but at the college itself.

Pupils were first given a demonstration on signalling systems with hyper-realistic simulation equipment by Nick Rodney, senior lecturer in command, control and communications.

“If you’re thinking of getting into the railways, get involved in command, control and communication!” he told the students.

The demonstration included simulations with wide-screen monitors to practice as close to the real thing as possible. Rodney made note of the use of “off-the-shelf ” simulation video games to engage young students into this particular part of the industry.

The college also demonstrated its use of AR and VR (augmented reality and virtual reality) technologies in order to simulate highly realistic scenarios in high-speed rail. Some of  this was demonstrated in an AR workshop, while the VR was ready for the students to try out aboard the Brumstar train – a life-sized high-speed train nested inside the college.

The final part of the college tour showcased NCHSR’s CAD/CAM and 3D printing facilities. This allowed students to see a scaled-down version of some of the stateof-the-art technology used for such things as geographical surveys, design and producing scale models.

Student were then bussed off to the recently redeveloped Birmingham New Street station – which gathers rain water for use in its toilets and has a concourse five times the size of London Euston – for a tour from shift station manager, Melanie Sackett.

Pupils were guided around the station and given a sneak peek into the control room; spoke to members of the British Transport Police, who presented the many different roles within rail; and were taken to the roof of the station and then down to its basement underneath the platforms, before heading to the ‘secret’ underground tunnels beneath the station.

As the students prepared for iRail’s staple bridge building challenge, teachers and industry representatives were invited to a set of seminars from Joanne Billing from HS2, talking about the importance of filling the skills gap in the high-speed rail industry; Melanie Sackett from Network Rail, who looked into the world of jobs available within the rail industry that are unrelated to rail; and Carl Stanyard from West Midlands Trains, who talked about the franchise’s apprenticeship schemes.

Sackett, who’s just 24, revealed she studied French and Italian at Exeter University, showing, as she said, that “you don’t need to have an interest in railway to find a job that interests you in the rail industry.”

She explained that National Rail employs roughly 35,000 people, adding: “You have to start engagement really early on. You have to show people, women in particular, that the rail industry is an option for a career and that there are all sorts of roles out there.

“You have to get people thinking about the future, about Digital Railway and what the industry will look like in 2035, and take them to meet people in the rail industry who have jobs that are a little bit different.”

Sackett acknowledged that although there  is a massive engineer shortfall, they already know about the rail industry. “It’s important to talk to those people who aren’t necessarily planning on going into rail and showing them what’s out there,” she added.

Carl Stanyard, the final speaker, said that when he got into the industry more than 40 years ago, he never had good academic qualifications, but that today “we would be looking for better academic qualification. Not necessarily university, but obviously it helps.”

He noted that when he first got into the industry, there wasn’t such a thing as formal apprenticeships – but now West Midlands Trains, his employer, has promised 400 of them over the franchise’s lifetime. Other TOCs and rail companies have made similar pledges, in line with the government’s aims.

But Stanyard feels events such as iRail are lacking, and argued that we need more of them to fill the skills gap. “I think the transport network in this country is saturated, so therefore I think rail is a no-brainer. It’s an exciting industry to get involved with at the moment. There’s such a lot of investment in it,” he noted.

A fantastic experience

The final half of the day centred around  the engineering challenge, which saw pupils build a bridge from paper, card, straws and other basic materials. Their bridges were tested and had to be wide enough for a model train to pass underneath, as well as robust enough to hold the weight of the train. Students were also judged on their innovation and cost-efficiency, as they had to ‘buy’ any additional materials.

The three judges – Clair Mowbray, chief executive of the NCHSR; Elaine Clark, general manager of Rail Forum East Midlands; and Stanyard – selected two schools to present their bridges: the Holt School and the Aston University Engineering Academy.

The judges commended all students for using skills which would be useful in real-world applications, but in the end selected Aston as the winners and Holt as runners-up. They praised Holt for their bridge’s durability, efficiency and cost-effectiveness as well as their focus on teamwork, but Aston’s simplicity in maintenance and design, along with inspiration from real-world architects, gave them the edge.

Michelle Lewis, programme manager for iRail, said the students gained a fantastic experience they wouldn’t normally get in school, adding: “The feedback from students has been really good; they’re really enthusiastic in seeing the rail industry at its very best.”

“Having the event here brings a completely different dimension. In using a facility like this with all its fantastic equipment, we decided instead of two site tours we’d make the college one site tour because why not get the experience of using that equipment? You don’t get AR headsets in an average school.

“Bringing them into the college to see the fantastic facilities and the investment in rail is really important for the students.”

Lewis continued: “You look at the stats that come out of the Rail Delivery Group, the demand for engineers and all associated careers within rail is massive. The only way we’re going to fill that is by enthusing young people to come and want to work in rail, and I think events like this do that; it excites them.

“Prior to this event, we go into schools and do workshops to talk about the breadth of careers in rail. If they’re into video games, for example, why not become a software engineer? There’s lots of different opportunities in rail and that’s what this gets across.”

Ensuring that the skills gap is plugged for the high-speed rail industry is a massive, complex task that requires collaboration, innovation and hard work from across the industry. But with events such as iRail engaging and exciting young people about the endless opportunities not just in high-speed rail, but the rail industry as a whole, that goes some way to ensuring we’re investing in the future.

NCHSR’s Mowbray concluded: “It was fantastic to host the iRail event at our Birmingham Campus and see so many young people enthused about pursuing a career in rail. We are acutely aware of the unprecedented skills gap in the UK across the rail sector, and the iRail event was such a brilliant way to inspire young people to consider the rail sector as a destination career.”

Top image: LearnbyDesign 


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