Asking the engineers

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Jun/Jul 2012

Transportation director at Lloyd’s Register, John Stansfeld, talks to RTM about a new survey on engineering skills in the rail industry.

A survey of members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) conducted by Lloyd’s Register, sheds new light on the reasons why rail may be struggling to attract the brightest young graduates, and highlights a perception that too many engineers feel they have been boxed in by overspecialisation.

The organisation’s transportation director, John Stansfeld, who also sits on the board of the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE), told RTM that the results of the survey of 220 engineers struck a chord with him.

He said: “The interesting point that came out of it was this question about specialising too early: I think that’s a bit of a conundrum in a way, because the railway industry’s always going to need specialist engineers, as well as more broad-based engineers.

“Clearly most of the respondents, the majority, seem to be saying they felt they had specialised too early, and were therefore constrained in the ways their careers could develop.”

He said the causes of this included the discipline they chose at the start of their careers, and maybe a shift in the way graduates are being trained, with less emphasis on sandwich courses and the broad-based graduate training programmes as existed under British Rail.

He said: “If you take Network Rail for instance, or a train operating company, what they have to offer a graduate now is of much more limited scope than would have been available for someone entering a British Rail training programme, which was a vertically integrated company where they did everything from running the trains to building the track and operating the systems and so forth.

“The results of this survey may well reflect the fragmentation of the industry.”

Stansfeld continued: “One of the reasons for the perception that a lack of young people are going into rail is of course the lack of investment there’s been in the railways and the fragmentation of the industry after privatisation, which meant that it’s been seen as one of the ‘old’ industries. It’s only really recently that rail has started to get a higher profile with investments in things like highspeed rail, driverless cabs, new signalling, all of those things that actually start to make it look interesting again. I think there’s a bit of an industry perception problem in terms of attracting young people into railway engineering.”

Tackling the problem

One remedy to over-specialisation is a greater emphasis on systems engineering, Stansfeld suggested.

It is important to ensure people aren’t placed in “particular silos” for years on end, he said, and trainee engineers need to understand the systems aspect of railway operations: how everything has a knock-on effect throughout the system.

“That needs to be built into the training of graduates and built into any of the academic degree programmes, this whole area of systems thinking,” he said. “As the railways become higher performance and more demanding in terms of availability and standards and safety, that systems thinking is absolutely essential. It really is an increasingly important part of the training and education for professional engineers, and I think that seems to be the main message that’s coming out of this survey.”

Another part of the solution is continuing and expanding the work being done to increase engagement between the industries and the academic sector, for example through the work of RRUKA as explained on page 18.

Stansfeld also highlighted the work being done by the Young Engineers, the Young Railway Professionals, the Smallpeice Trust and NSARE. Lloyd’s Register works with some of these organisations to deliver railway experience and education courses for school children, via the Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust. It and NSARE have been sponsoring such courses run by the Smallpeice Trust, the next of which is at Askham Bryan College in York from July 30 to August 2, giving 13 and 14 year olds the chance to explore the design, construction and operation of railways.

Stansfeld said: “There are lots of engineers, and certainly we’ve got some, who love getting involved in these courses. We’ve just got to do more of that – we’re not going to change perceptions overnight; this is almost a generational change. But there’s no doubt about it, railways are going to become increasingly important because of all the congestion and carbon issues.”

“They are going to be a very significant part of our future transport arrangements and they will inevitably need to become more innovative.”

Stansfeld noted that systems approaches are taking hold elsewhere in the industry, for example via Network Rail’s shift to ‘alliancing’ with operators, most notably South West Trains.

The role of NSARE

Stansfeld sits on the board of NSARE, which has a “very important role” in all of this, he said.

“NSARE is taking a lead in the industry in putting in place common approaches, common qualification schemes, common recognition of qualifications and competences – all of that movement is absolutely in the right direction.

“Having accredited training providers will help us get from here to where we need to be: all the building blocks are there, and because NSARE represents the industry – it’s got the infrastructure operators, train operating companies, freight, consultants – that’s why there’s been so much support. People recognise at last that ‘here’s a body that’s actually doing something’.”

Recruitment and retention

RTM asked Stansfeld whether tackling overspecialisation among engineers could have the unintended consequence of making it easier for some engineers to move away from rail.

He said: “There will always be some people who will want to move around and I think that’s a good thing, because you get transfer of know-how, cross-learning from different industries and so on, and that’s very positive. I wouldn’t want to try to do anything to stop that.

“But at the same time, I don’t think the respondents to the survey are advocating that everybody should be a generalist. I think really what they’re saying is that there are two lots of engineers: the people who are well-rounded generalists who are maybe going to be the senior managers and leaders in the industry in the future and need to have a broad understanding of how it works, then the technical specialists who need to be able to get a broad understanding of how the railway system works rather than simply being just funnelled in one direction, or having a single diet. I wouldn’t be worried about engineers going off to other industries: I think that’s very positive, and hopefully the rail industry will be able to accept engineers coming back in the other direction.”

Standards and interoperability

The Lloyd’s Register Group – credited by the Guardian newspaper recently as being a “very British success story”, as well as a model of corporate responsibility – is ultimately concerned with standards, assurance, risk management and processes. It is no wonder, therefore, that it has found plenty of work in the rail industry.

Stansfeld said a key challenge for the industry was allowing more cross-border traffic via standardisation and interoperability.

He said: “Any country you look at has its own particular way of doing things and although there is a European initiative, of course, to try to arrive at a common way of doing things, via the directives and so forth, there’s still a very heavy national component that comes into play.

“If you really want to reduce costs in the industry, and you want genuinely common standards where things are completely interoperable, you don’t want to redesign a component every time you run it on a different piece of railway. That’s a challenge. We need products genuinely certified in one country to be acceptable in another.

“We are interested in trying to work towards common approaches to assurance. We are an organisation that is essentially about engineering and technology. We have nothing to sell apart from the skills and know-how of our people and therefore we are very interested in ensuring there’s a ready supply of people for the future, and that they are well-rounded. The services we provide to the industry are assurance and technical expert advice, so we employ quite a wide range of engineers here, but the people who are really most useful are those with broad experience in a number of different areas: people who can take a systems view and also deal with the interfaces between different systems,because that’s where problems occur. We are interested in doing what we can to advance the education of future engineers.”

The survey results

Statement 1: The rail industry relies too much on internal, self-accredited training and standards rather than more generic qualifications to measure competence. This restricts recruitment of skilled candidates from other fields. It should be more open to skills brought in from other engineering disciplines.

Strongly Agree 17%
Agree 41%
No opinion 7%
Disagree 30%
Strongly disagree 3%

Statement 2: Qualifications within the rail industry are too ‘national’ in their approach. This will not adequately serve an industry that is likely to become increasingly international, with increases in cross-border operations and operators submitting tenders in other countries. It should work towards international qualifications, standards and certificates for staff at all levels

Strongly Agree 17%
Agree 43%
No opinion 18%
Disagree 20%
Strongly disagree 2%

Statement 3: From the outset, training and development encourages specialisms within its workforce leading to narrow career paths that prohibits skills transfer and deters new entrants. Tomorrow’s engineers will benefit from an emphasis on developing a wider level of knowledge from an earlier stage of their career

Strongly Agree 32%
Agree 50%
No opinion 8%
Disagree 8%
Strongly disagree 3%

For the full survey, and respondents’ comments on these survey questions, see

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