Rail Industry Focus


School pupils get a taste of railway careers at iRail 2016

Source: RTM Apr/May 16

RTM’s Rosemary Collins reports from the seventh annual iRail event held in Derby.

Young people got to test out their visions for the future of the railway industry at the seventh annual iRail event, held at the iPro football stadium in Derby, on 15 March. 

The event aims to be a fun and educational day for Year 9 pupils from local schools, with a serious purpose: to address the skills shortage in rail engineering.

Skills shortage 

As John Evans, CEO of the soon-to-open National College for High Speed Rail, said in his keynote speech later in the day, 87,000 graduate engineers are needed a year in the UK, and is currently producing only 51,000.

Like many STEM industries, rail is also struggling to attract women. Currently, just 4% of the engineers who complete a Level 4 apprenticeship are women. 

There has been a drive to address the problem recently, including the creation of a Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce, chaired by HS2 Ltd CEO Simon Kirby, with a target of creating 30,000 new transport apprentices, including 20% female apprentices, by 2020. 

However, more needs to be done. iRail, therefore, aims to highlight to young people with a gift for science and technology, who wouldn’t previously have considered rail as a career, what opportunities the industry offers. 

As Dave Saunders, chair of iRail, told RTM: “The first thing we have got to do is let them know we exist. The rail industry is going to be fighting all the other industries for the best people.” 

Pupils began the day by visiting the Bombardier factory, where they toured the assembly line and saw trains being tested. 

“It was a bit cold, but it was definitely good,” said teacher George Grant from Derby’s Bemrose School, whose group of STEM students, volunteered by the teachers, included two girls and two boys. “The two girls really enjoyed it. But it’s definitely still a male-dominated area.”

Train and testing of the future 

The Bombardier trip established a theme for the day, where the students were split into two, with one set of school groups tasked with designing the train of the future and the other half tasked with developing ways to test it. 

To help develop their plans, students had the chance to consult with railway industry professionals from companies and organisations including ESG, Rail Forum East Midlands and Loughborough University, who occupied stalls around the exhibition hall. They also got to learn more about apprenticeships and other career opportunities. 

Interactive activities, including the chance to reconstruct how railway accidents can be avoided with RAIB and to use a virtual reality train cab simulator, designed by Oculus and used in teaching at the National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR), were particularly popular. 

Heidi Lee, from ESG, agreed that the railway industry needs to shake up its image to appeal to more young people. “There’s this idea that it’s a grey spanner industry,” she said, “and it’s really not. A lot of the maintenance work is done with laptops. It’s not like it used to be.”  

Lee added that Crossrail 2 and HS2 mean there are more and more diverse job opportunities in the industry than ever. “The only thing the industry does suffer with is recruitment,” she agreed. “So the more people we can spread the message to that it’s a great and exciting industry to be in, the better.” 

The day certainly helped combat preconceptions, with pupils excitedly trying out activities on the stalls and brainstorming ideas for their presentation. 

“I like that we’ve found out more about what engineering’s about,” said Paul Lane, a pupil from Lady Manners School in Bakewell. 

“Now that I’ve found out more about what rail is,” said Derby High School’s Orla MacFarlane, “I think it’s more likely I’ll want to work there. It’s really interesting.” 


Biggest ever iRail 

This year’s iRail was the biggest ever, with 16 schools attending, but given the popularity of the event, the team want to expand even further. 

“We’re looking to grow right across the East Midlands,” event manager Paul Jones said. 

In the afternoon, pupils pitched their ideas to a ‘Dragons’ Den’ panel consisting of John Evans, Sam Rush, CEO of Derby County Football Club, and May-Ann Lew, Young Rail Professional National STEM Ambassador co-ordinator. 

The dragons judged on the pupils’ technical skills and their soft skills such as presentation, which are equally important in the changing rail engineering industry. 

The crucial question in the train testing competition was whether to use new virtual reality technology – cheaper and more environmentally friendly – or real-world testing such as the school groups saw at the Bombardier factory, which is more expensive and time-consuming but may be more thorough in catching errors. 

Bemrose School won for their three-part plan, including virtual reality testing inspired by the NTAR simulator, then small-scale prototype tests in the lab, followed by automated manufacturing and testing. 

In the train of the future section, many of the school groups had creative ideas about using lighter materials in design and maximising space to accommodate increasing passenger demand. 

City of Derby Academy, for example, one of several all-girls groups at the event, proposed a design with an aluminium frame and tables that could be folded away. 

John Flamsteed Community School from Denby, however, won the train of the future competition, and the overall prize, with a train designed for growing city populations, with fold-up seats to allow more standing room on short journeys, lighter magnesium alloy wheels, hot food vending machines and smart ticketing, all powered by renewable energy. 

Both schools won a selection of prizes, including cinema vouchers. The day’s overall runners-up, Bemrose, also received £250 to spend on STEM equipment for their school, while the winners received £500. The overall winner, John Flamsteed Community School, also won match tickets to a Derby County game at the iPro stadium. 

John Flamsteed pupil George Sutton said the day had made him think working in rail was “definitely something to consider”. 

“It’s definitely more interesting than it seems,” he added. “There’s much more to it.” 

Evans congratulated the winners on their “fantastic thinking”, adding: “If the future of the British rail industry is in your hands, I’m pretty optimistic about that.”

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