Rail Industry Focus


iRail 2017: inspiring the rail workers of the future

RTM’s Josh Mines reports from this year’s edition of iRail.

In mid-March, 12 teams of teenagers from schools around Derbyshire came together for this year’s iRail event, held at Pride Park stadium, the home of Derby County Football Club. 

But this event, which has been running since 2010, isn’t trying to entice young people into becoming the next hot-shot footballers. Instead, iRail’s goal is to encourage students to take up a career in the rail industry by introducing them to public and private sector companies in the sector and engaging them with a hands-on challenge. 

Pupils were tasked with building a bridge over a section of curved track – the construction of which had to hold the weight of a carriage, but also have slats wide enough to allow a carriage carrying a piece of cargo to safely pass underneath without hitting the bridge. 

Of course, the teenagers were not let loose at a Network Rail facility, but rather told to build scale models to simulate the scenario. The train carriage and tracks were replaced by model replicas, whilst paper took the place of concrete sleepers and steel supports made way for lolly sticks. 

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But the principles of practicality, decision-making, mathematical calculation and cost-efficiency that railway engineers and staff have to deal with every day remained the same. Though the teams were provided with base materials of paper and sellotape, pupils were also allocated a budget to buy additional supplies, or pay to demonstrate their initial designs on a test track before it was presented to the judges. 

The two top teams, Loughborough High School and Lady Manor, were invited to present their completed designs, whilst explaining their choices and evaluating their work in front of the judges. 

The eventual winners of the day were Loughborough High School, who were praised for thinking about using cylindrical and triangular shapes to make their structures stronger, as well as for opting to spend £100,000 of their budget on a ‘test’, allowing the team to analyse their bridge to make adjustments before handing it to the judges.

Sparking creativity and curiosity 

This kind of practical, hands-on approach is exactly what is needed to inspire young people into joining the rail industry from an early age, Simon Lidgett, HR business partner at Network Rail, believes. 

“Engineering is a science, so there are lots of physical factors involved with it. But creativity is always welcome. A lot has been done the same for a number of years, so it’s good to introduce a new type of thinking. Any blue-sky thinking has to be good for the industry,” he told RTM.

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The importance of iRail, Lidgett explained, is in bringing through the next generation of engineers: “Both Katie, our secretary manager of the Mobile Maintenance Train, and Albert, an IP project manager, joined us as apprentices. 

“Within Network Rail we have apprenticeship and graduate schemes – so we are constantly looking to get young people with energy and drive in to be the next engineers.” 

Stefan Berci, communications and marketing manager at the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), also highlighted the importance of engaging students from an early age. 

“At the moment, railway and railway engineering is an area where kids don’t consider going and which parents and teachers don’t know much about,” he said. 

“As an industry, we have a responsibility to try and get a message across to inspire the next generation.” 

And events like iRail seem to be providing that platform. Jay Small, 13, from Lees Brook Community School told RTM that he wanted to be a civil engineer – and that iRail had helped inform his decision. 

“The opportunities we get here and the help they [professionals from the industry] are offering us is good,” he said. “And it’s great that these people can take time out to help us with making choices about our careers. 

“They are giving us the opportunity, so we may as well take it.” 

Diversifying the workforce 

Today, the rail workforce craves diversity, and is in the process of adapting to provide a range of options to a broad group of people interested in becoming rail professionals. Gone are the days where a university degree was the primary education for the staff maintaining and contributing to the railway network. 

Beth Curtis, head of partnerships and communications at the National College for High Speed Rail, which is opening its doors to apprentices in September, said that iRail played a crucial role in closing the skills gap and getting young talent on board for huge projects like HS2. 

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“There’s a real lack of diversity in the industry, and there’s a real skill shortage of getting young people in, particularly with girls. It’s great to see plenty of girls in the room getting enthused about rail,” Curtis added. 

“It’s important that students understand that there’s a vocational and academic route and that both are equally valid. The national college is delivering Level 4 higher apprenticeships and also a college-based route, which is a higher national certificate level qualification, but both routes have a lot of interaction with industry. 

“As an apprentice, you are employed in the industry but on the college-based routes you spend about a third of your time out on work placement.”

The many routes into rail 

Another key message that pupils could take away from the day was that there were more staff working on the railway than just engineers, as Lidgett himself made clear. 

“Network Rail is more than just an engineering company. We have financial, commercial and HR divisions, so even though iRail is aimed at the engineering industry, it’s good to remind young people that there are other careers in rail as well,” he said.

This is a sentiment echoed by one teacher, Alastair Dunn, who is assistant head at Lees Brook Community School: “It isn’t just about the engineering opportunity, but about the range of things that rail encompasses. The teachers’ talk I went to pressed how much software engineering there is now, for example, and there’s plenty of other roles available in lots of different disciplines.”

Out of the classroom and on to the track 

The value of practical events like iRail comes from directly showing schoolchildren what a career in rail looks like and the steps that they must take to achieve their goals, as Lee Richardson, a teacher at the George Spencer Academy, explained. 

“Having an event that students attend where they talk to people who actually work in the industry means they actually get information from the horse’s mouth, so to speak,” Richardson stated. 

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“You don’t know who the next engineers are going to be and who might be inspired by their day here. Sometimes you struggle being creative in schools, whereas here there’s a chance for pupils to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.” 

Diversifying and expanding the rail workforce is a complex task for the industry to face. But with numerous large-scale rail projects on the horizon, and efforts being made by the government as well as rail companies to create new apprenticeship opportunities, now is as good a time as any for ambitious young people to start work on Britain’s railways – and events like iRail may well be the most innovative way of building a strong and varied workforce for the future.

(Image: c. Learn by Design)

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