Rail Industry Focus


Start of a new era in rail training

Source: RTM Apr/May 15

The north east’s first Rail Academy dedicated to rail engineering has now been officially opened. David Stevenson reports.

The doors have officially opened at Newcastle College’s new £5m Rail Academy in Gateshead, which will be a regional hub for training and development for railway engineering going forward. 

At the launch event, Carole Kitching, principal of Newcastle College, told the audience of industry delegates that the Academy, which has been two years in the making, can play a crucial role in plugging the sector’s “crisis in demand for skills”. 

Industry support vital 

Developed with support from the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) and Network Rail, the north east’s first Rail Academy has widespread industry support, but that must be continued, noted Kitching. 

“Please keep talking to us, this is your rail academy,” she said. “You will see the outstanding facilities we have for training, including track and signalling. 

“Back in September, 60 young people joined us to start training in their career and we expect to more than double this next year. We have the capacity to grow to meet demand.”

The Rail Academy offers a Level 3 Diploma in rail engineering suitable for all age groups, and it wants to develop engineering apprenticeships with a rail focus plus higher education qualifications specifically tailored to the needs of industry. 

The College adds that future industry standard short courses include P-way, overhead line equipment including isolations, and an extensive range of S&T training. It can also design bespoke training solutions to meet client requirements. 

The new facility, just off the Felling Bypass, near the Sunderland/Newcastle rail link, includes full indoor and outdoor OLE, fully operating S&C and S&T equipment, multiple P-way set-ups, the latest electronic and PLC testing and monitoring equipment, and a signalling and mechanical workshop. 

During the opening ceremony, business and skills secretary Vince Cable praised the Rail Academy as being “a critical part of the future investment in skills” in a recorded message. 

He said: “We have got to invest very heavily in skills, especially through apprenticeships, and the Rail Academy will be an absolute critical part of that, alongside the new development that’s taking place at Northampton [the National Training Academy for Rail, funded by NSARE, the government and Siemens] and the National College for High Speed 2, which is going to be developed at Birmingham and Doncaster. 

“I would like to congratulate Newcastle College on this outstanding facility and wish all of the students every success in the future.” 

Greater collaboration 

Guy Wilmshurst-Smith, head of professional development and training for Network Rail, told the audience that his 30 years in the British Army – where he finished as Commander 170 Engineer Group, with responsibility for providing infrastructure planning, engineering design and project management support to Army operations worldwide – had given him “a deep respect for the value of good training and what it looks like”. 

He said that the facility had blown him away, with the Academy being “far bigger and far more capable” than he originally thought.

He acknowledged the coming skills gap in rail and the role the Academy will play in redressing it, but said the biggest training challenge is not technical but behavioural. 

“We need many technically-qualified people, absolutely! But they must be able to communicate effectively, comfortable with the ambiguity of the modern world and most of all understand and embrace moral and ethical responsibilities. That way safety and performance will be ensured,” he said. “That challenge, to all of us, involves training to blend the technical and the behavioural.” 

He added that Network Rail has worked with the college to develop its layout, but wants to take that collaboration further. 

“I see that as just a start. I am happy to share training materials we develop and many of those training materials reach into the intellectual heartland of Network Rail’s engineering expertise,” he said. 

“I’m also happy to provide access to our specialist equipment in our York training centre. I believe that by working with our training centres across the rest of the country, in the hub and spoke context – so often spoke about – we can collectively bring the whole horsepower of the training industry much further forward and provide much more effective training. 

“This is an incredible facility and is just the start of the journey.” 

Admiring the tenacity 

David Waboso, director of capital programmes at London Underground, outlined the capacity challenges facing TfL and the digitisation of the railway, along with his thoughts on the workforce. 

“We do have a skills gap, undoubtedly, you’ve heard the stats in the past,” he said. “The average age of an engineer is 55. There’s nothing wrong with being 55, of course, but that’s the average age and we’re all getting older. We need younger blood coming in, and the rail industry for many years was not invested in [this]. 

“It is only relatively recently we’ve started to turn this around, but it will take us a long time. It is a generational thing. That is why I doff my hat to what you’ve done here. 

“When you see a facility like this you can only be impressed by the tenacity and vision it must have taken to get it going. This is a national investment to give hope and jobs to youngsters and to strengthen the industry.” 

Marc McPake, head of the Rail Academy, said it marked the start of a new era in training for the next generation of rail engineers. 

“We are helping to develop the skills that are needed by industry today, but also creating a pipeline of skilled people with the knowledge of the state of the art equipment that we will see in the rail industry in the future,” he explained. 

NSARE’s chief executive, Gil Howarth, who is standing down in July after four successful years heading the organisation, to be replaced by Neil Robertson, said it is vital that the sector attracts young people “into our buoyant industry – we need a highly competent workforce to support record levels of investment”.

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