For the first time for many years, the future for the UK railway industry looks positive. Privatisation has brought a new competitive environment; passenger numbers are increasing.
However, the new industry also faces significant technical and commercial challenges. Performance is less than satisfactory, particularly in reliability and punctuality. If the new passengers are to be retained, their experience of rail travel must be positive: trains must be clean, punctual, and not overcrowded.
Limitations of existing infrastructure and rolling stock require short-term innovative solutions to attract more passengers and achieve growth. Engineers must develop new approaches to train maintenance to maximise availability of trains at peak times.
But long-term growth is likely to place severe pressures on system capacity. There is an ever more complex regulatory background with the introduction, for example, of new technical standards for inter-operability and for safety initiatives such as crashworthiness. Customers want improved performance and better value for money.
The railway depends on the successful integration of a diverse set of technologies ranging from relatively traditional civil engineering through to some of the most advanced safety-critical realtime systems.
Successful integration of these technologies depends on harnessing the potential of current and future generations of railway engineers.
Where are these future engineers to come from? Training and development is vital to produce engineers with the breadth of knowledge and experience required by the industry. But few companies in the new industry now have sufficient breadth of activity to provide all the necessary experience entirely from their own operations, as the former British Railways Board scheme did.
Following a recent forum hosted by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers involving 75 industry representatives from 23 companies, a possible solution to this training problem has emerged.
The forum proposed an ‘Engineering Passport’ to document training and development which could become an essential feature of a railway engineer’s competence and experience. This could be underpinned by a network by which companies would help engineers achieve chartered status by providing development opportunities and wider experience through project-based job exchanges with other companies.
Member companies could register all young engineers with the scheme and provide opportunities through projects or other task-related learning for young engineers employed by other scheme companies, and would nominate a senior engineer to act as mentor.
Funding could be shared between the IMechE and the railway companies, and would be used by the IMechE to appoint a dedicated team to liaise between young engineers seeking experience which cannot be provided by their employer, and members who can provide that experience. The IMechE meanwhile would work with members to ensure engineers meet the standards to achieve chartered status as early as possible.
The IMechE is seeking support from companies to develop and launch such a passport scheme and to form a steering group.
We believe engineers can contribute a great deal to the new railway industry. But, after the vacuum caused by the privatisation process, there is an urgent need for this new initiative if the best engineers are to be recruited for the future. The support of the new railway companies, and other professional institutions, is vital if it is to succeed.
Peter Lowe is chairman of the IMechE railway division and Adtranz projects director.