Rail Industry Focus


Firing up the next generation

Source: Rail Technology Magazine March/April 2013

RTM attended iRail 2013, and was struck by the enthusiasm of young students in tackling rail challenges. Kate Ashley reports from the event and gets a view on the issue from keynote speaker Peter Dearman, head of energy at Network Rail.

The fourth iRail event saw students attend the Derby Roundhouse for a day of challenge, information and inspiration.

Held on March 12, the event involved teenagers from 11 local schools taking on an engineering problem and presenting their solutions to a Dragon’s Den style panel of experts.

The 2013 event was organised by the Transport iNet working with the Young Railway Professionals (YRP), Derby and Derbyshire Rail Forum (DDRF), Derby Railway Engineering Society (DRES), the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).

iRail is supported by Rail Technology Magazine, Derby City Council and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

A business breakfast allowed industry professionals to network and discuss the best ways to encourage more young people into a career in rail.

College students taking railway engineering courses at Derby College took part in the iRail challenge in the morning, while the school pupils were taken on tours of Bombardier Transportation and Network Rail’s East Midlands Control Centre, before completing their challenge throughout the afternoon.

The event was followed by a keynote speech by Peter Dearman, head of energy at Network Rail.

A passion for engineering

It was railway consultancy ESG’s first time at the event, and engineer Stephanie Coates expressed her pleasure at being there: “I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

“Speaking to a lot of the children and young adults here, they’ve really shown that there’s a passion for engineering. There’s a massive skills gap and if we’re not careful in 20 years’ time there’s going to be noone left in the rail industry able to fill that gap.

“It was really good for me, as a young person in engineering, to see that there are still people out there who are interested in going into an engineering career.”

Coates was one of the judges at the event, and a STEM ambassador who regularly attends similar days around the industry to encourage more young people to get into science, technology, engineering and maths.

She added: “I thought they were fantastic challenges, some of which have been facing the rail industry for decades now.

“It was very difficult to judge. Both of the presentations were absolutely fantastic.”

Facing the competition

The students had one of two challenges to complete; one on transporting freight, and the other on tackling the mammoth problem of cable theft.

The RAIB was also on hand to offer workshops on the shape of train wheels to facilitate turning, and on the safety precautions that had to be set up at level crossings.

Competitors came up with a wide range of novel solutions, from harsher punishments to fake cables, as well as variations on methods already in force across the network, such as liquids to mark perpetrators and steel casing and troughing to make the cable more difficult to reach.

As well as working with STEM mentors, the pupils were encouraged to interact with the range of exhibitors who could help with specific questions about their challenge, or opportunities in the industry in wider detail.

Sinfin Community School’s team was declared the winner, after a convincing and well-thought out presentation on protecting cable, and were presented with their prize by Dearman.

Infectious enthusiasm

It was also a first visit for keynote speaker and challenge judge Dearman, who told RTM: “It’s been really exciting to be here.”

Dearman commended the students’ drive and pure enjoyment of the day, as well as their interaction with industry experts and the quality of their solutions to the challenges. He said: “It’s infectious isn’t it? You can’t help but find yourself smiling when you’re sat in front of a group of enthusiastic teenagers, so fi red up for what they’re talking about that they’re giggling amongst themselves as they talk – it’s brilliant.

“I found the whole day really infectious. I’m in awe of young people at this age being able to apply themselves so readily, quickly and effectively to problems that were sprung upon them at a moment’s notice.”

Free thinking and practicality

There were two main areas that impressed Dearman; a “strong degree of out-of-thebox thinking” from Merrill school, and from winning Sinfin, “a real grounded practicality of what can and can’t be done”.

He explained: “What really swung it for the Sinfi n team was the fact that they had researched the cost of copper scrap and aluminium scrap and they were able to articulate why it was better to use the cheaper material. I thought that was really something, at their age, to think to that depth is really good.”

On the particular challenges chosen by the Transport Innovation Network (iNet) and the DDRF – which are changed every year to keep the event current – Dearman commented: “It’s a railway – it’s got every problem under the sun. I could think of lots of other things that could have been looked at, but I think they were perfectly laudable and very sensible challenges. The briefi ng time is limited and you’ve got to be able to explain the problem quickly; I was impressed by that.”

Fresh ideas, fresh minds

On the rail industry’s duty and effectiveness at promoting itself as a viable career choice for young people, he said: “I’d like to see us doing a lot more.” This could be as much to do with the scale of work available, based on investment, as shaking off a dusty reputation to appeal to the next generation, Dearman said.

“I think the railway is moving to a very different profi le of spend. For the past 20 years our spending has been dominated by maintaining what we’ve got, stewardship of our assets, putting right some problems that the industry has had.

“We’re now moving, in the next fi nancial control period, to a much increased investment with new works. “The electrifi cation programme, which is dear to my heart, will need many more engineers, technicians and people to do the work than we have in place currently.

“We don’t do enough of this, because it needs young people involved with fresh ideas, fresh minds, to take on the challenge of doing this long into the future. “It is really vital to keeping our industry alive.”

Opportunities to offer

The problem was not as simple as a lack of concern about the issue from the industry, or lack of interest from students, but Dearman said: “There’s a bit of both going on, I think the one predicates the other.

“The industry has not, for a number of years, done a lot in terms of recruiting young people at apprentice level and taking forward graduate training.

“That’s changed in the past six, seven, eight years, and if you’re talking about Network Rail’s influence on this, there is now a really vibrant graduate training scheme and we take on 200- plus apprentices each year through our main apprentice training scheme in Portsmouth.

“Now that is in place, there is a reason for the rail industry to go out and to publicise itself to the youngsters. Whilst there was no programme, it’s no surprise that there was no advertisement. Now we’re in a different place.

“All of us involved in the railway need to be taking a sensible approach to invest in the future [through] schools. It’s very important to understand that technology is only part of the answer – we can have the best technology in the world, we can have the money to put that technology in place, but without the people to do it, it won’t happen.”

The future is electric

Dearman also presented the ‘Distinguished Lecture’ later that evening, to a packed crowd of rail professionals. He discussed the importance of the Electric Spine, and how the industry could go further to impact on the UK’s wider energy use.

He highlighted that in the face of rising fuel prices, and global warming, change was no longer an option, but a necessity.

Dearman expressed his belief that renewables would play a larger part of the UK’s energy mix in the future, but stated that more must be done to make investment in nuclear power more viable.

Rail operators are set to come under further pressure from consumers to become more sustainable as prices rise, he said. Electrification will only become more important as a futureproof technology and will help rail to compare with other industries such as aerospace and countries like Japan, which boasts 40% more efficiency due to a lighter and faster railway.

Electric systems can also deliver savings in track maintenance, as they fall under less wear, and the freight spine will be vital, Dearman added. To go from “famine to feast”, the industry will require a significant increase in staff, with an intense period of training and development ahead.

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