Jerry England Engineering director, Network Rail

What would be the advantages and disadvantages of the government appointing a Chief Engineering Adviser?

With the correct remit and the correct person it would provide a focus for engineering within the UK, and could be a catalyst for us to grow (and market) a capability for high-end, high value engineering services. It would recognise that engineering on a par with science, which already has a chief scientist. Engineering represents the application and commercial exploitation of science and in many respects is more significant to the economy.

What are the highest priority areas for government spending to enhance the UK’s capability in your sector, and in technology in general?

Engineering and technology has a big role to play in helping to make the UK competitive by improving our productivity. We can only do this through developing and training a skilled workforce at all levels of engineering. We have lost our manufacturing industry largely because our labour rates are uncompetitive in a world market, but there is no reason why we cannot develop the next generation of ‘manufacturing’ industries in a competitive way. The UK has an opportunity to develop a sustainable and healthy manufacturing base, based on high-end, value added engineering, focusing on leading edge, research and development.

Which recent government policies have been particularly effective for your sector, and which (if any) have been a hindrance?

The current policy to support rail travel is obviously very beneficial, but we still think we need to get to a more integrated transport policy, with efficient interchanges between the various modes. These are currently too few and far between. There are difficulties here for historical reasons, but engineering expertise, and the right technologies, must have a part to play in finding a solution. We believe the Government must also end its balanced approach to transport, so-called “modal agnosticism”, and actively favour rail. Rail has many advantages over air and road, and for many journeys is the quickest and most efficient way to travel.

Which of the engineering and technology sectors are underperforming in the UK and what could be done to bolster them?

There are many sectors which aren’t fulfilling their real potential on the world stage. We are very good at aerospace, defence, pharmaceuticals and construction machinery manufacturing, but lag behind in many other sectors. We seem to be better in niche areas – we lead the world in motor racing, but our automotive industry is weak as a whole.

From what you’ve seen so far, which of the main political parties has the best policies to address these issues?

There really hasn’t been much evidence in recent years that any of the political parties having a clear strategy to develop and grow engineering and technology sectors within the UK. We seem to have put all our efforts into developing financial services to the point where ‘engineering’ is something that the guy who comes to fix your washing machine does. However, we’re now seeing positive signs across the political spectrum to re-balance the economy, putting more focus on investing in infrastructure – and the talent to deliver it – in a bid to rebalance the economy.

Which areas of technology research do you think are best coordinated by the European Union, and which are better left within the UK?

If politicians are serious about growing the UK’s capabilities in engineering and technology, then surely we need to do this ourselves. We should rely on European support – and beyond – for more generic research activity and greater cross border cooperation help share information, develop technology and improve. Big, long-term speculative projects are best handled by the EU, such as nuclear fusion.

What are the biggest opportunities for growth in your sector, in the short and medium terms?

High speed rail. The problem though is that the most efficient way of developing a high speed network is probably to utilise technology and engineering expertise developed elsewhere. We will need to identify the next technologies and develop these if we are to get value as a country. Other short to medium term opportunities include major electrification schemes and our investment plans to expand capacity across the rail network.

What is the best way to approach technological goals in the long term (ie, with results more than five years off)? Can and should government play a role here?

We need to be thinking 10-30+ years ahead and developing technologies for that future age. The government has a huge role to play to help develop a strategy as well as providing some developmental support for technologies. Government should drive long-term technical goals as commercial organisations can’t always take a long-term view as the risks associated with development may be too high. With the right framework in place, industry should be allowed to take a lead as we have the expertise and know what is needed.

What do you think of the current status of engineers in the UK? What can be done to enhance it?

This is a long-term gripe of the engineering profession. Engineers should be role models that the public turn to in admiration. In other countries engineers have the same status as other professions. The status of engineers is undermined somewhat by the fragmented nature of the 36 professional bodies. If we are serious about rediscovering our engineering expertise we must attract the best people into engineering, and to do this we need to increase awareness and status. To help to address this, we need to engage better with schools and colleges to show what variety, challenges and excitement a career in engineering can bring.