It is well recognised that young people are the future of the railway. At a time when skills gaps still exist, and a large proportion of those working in the industry are within 10 years of retirement, it is hardly surprising that initiatives are in place to encourage young people to both join and remain working in our industry.

This process has three main elements. Firstly, both school and college students have to be convinced that rail will give them an interesting, challenging and rewarding career.

Then they have to be trained. Degrees in fields such as mechanical or civil engineering are all very well, but there are many specialised areas of knowledge that can only be taught by the industry itself or related educational establishments.

Finally, the job, and the whole career, has to be interesting enough to retain these talented people. Privatisation has actually made that task more difficult. In British Rail days, management and engineering trainees could spend time in a variety of departments, getting a feel for how the railway works as a whole before settling down in their chosen field.

That doesn’t happen now. There are initiatives for infrastructure companies, design consultants and train operators to ‘swap’ graduates so they can gain that experience, but it is not general practice.

IMechE ATT

Rail Engineer has supported Young Rail Professionals since its inception, as it provides a good way for people in the early years of their rail career to meet their peers and compare notes. Network Rail’s Commercial Directors Forum has its Triple-Ts, Tomorrow’s Talent Today, which is a working group of young commercial practitioners from a variety of companies undertaking common tasks and reporting back.

The Railway Division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has, for a number of years, encouraged its younger members in a number of ways. The Railway Challenge, held every year, encourages teams of young graduates and apprentices to build their own locomotive, albeit in 10.1/4” gauge, to undertake various tasks. Though smaller than main line locos, these devices can still weigh 750kg and entrants have been getting to grips with hydrogen fuel cells and regenerative braking using batteries, supercapacitors, hydraulics and even mechanical springs, so there is plenty of innovation being shown.

Another way the Institution encourages its younger members, and has done since at least 1928, is by organising the Annual Technical Tour. To quote Emil Tschepp, who went to Germany as part of the 2012 ATT and now works as a senior field and component test engineer for Transport for London, this is “a week-long international tour featuring visits to manufacturers and transport operators to broaden the experience of engineers in the railway industry. The tour also provides the opportunity for young members to meet people from all across the industry, including company directors and internationally recognised subject experts.”

The most recent tour, in November 2016, was promoted as going “to the very heart of Germany, both rural and industrial, and will include visits to manufacturing plants, railway operators, unusual modes of transport and a major research installation.

“The participants will visit the steam railway in the Harz mountains to satisfy mechanical engineers interested in history, modern rolling stock manufacturing plants
and a test track. They will also get insights into DB Systemtechnik’s research centre at Minden, the unique Wuppertaler Schwebebahn and its new rolling stock, as well as the lignite mine at Garzweiler and its heavy haul railway, the Hambachbahn.”

It all sounded very interesting. Three of the participants, Alex Hopkins, John Batty and Sutopa Paul, take up the story.

November tour

This year’s annual technical tour took us to Germany where an intense itinerary showed us a vast spectrum of the country’s rail industry. Visits included:

  • Harz Mountain Railway – a steam workshop and trip up the Brocken Mountain;
  • Manufacturing plants – from wheelsets to full train production facilities at Alstom and Siemens;
  • The railway test centres of DB Systemtechnik and Siemens;
  • Wuppertal – the suspension railway and trolleybus networks;
  • Open-cast mining and the heavy freight railway supplying the German power grid;
  • An exclusive tour of Antwerp Station.

It was our first time on the German railway system and we all believed that we would experience the punctual and cohesive network that is often described. However, our maiden journey, from Hanover to the beautiful town of Wernigerode, involved an hour delay and a missed connection. This, unfortunately, was to be a reoccurring theme for the rest of the week. The tour commenced at the workshops of the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways. In this well-equipped, component-filled facility, it was interesting to see traditional and modern engineering techniques being used to maintain, repair and overhaul the fleet of 25 steam locomotives. The network is a professional, commercially run operation that boasts an annual revenue of €17 million. We then had the opportunity to experience the railways by taking a steam train up to the former Russian listening post on top of the Brocken mountain. The trip gave us some spectacular views and photo opportunities of the snow covered, tree-lined landscape.

Modern manufacturing On the next morning, we visited the wheelset works of Bochumer Verein, where some of the latest innovations in wheelset design are produced. Examples of these are wheelsets with the ability to change gauge and others with greater resistance to heat generated by braking. At this site, prefabricated wheels and axles are expertly machined, assembled and quality tested to European Standards. The Alstom manufacturing site at Salzgitter showcased the manufacture and assembly of numerous variations of regional trains and bogie configurations, destined for railways in Europe and Scandinavia. One interesting discovery was, hidden away on one of the production lines, the Alstom emission-free Coradia iLint. This hybrid train, a diesel-electrical multiple unit with roof mounted hydrogen fuel cells, has been badged as the complete solution to non-electric lines where electrification is not feasible.

At the Siemens site at Krefeld, we were impressed by the neat Logistik work control and material management system being used to build Desiro City, ICE and Eurostar trains. By task number, the system tracks, organises and delivers all associated parts to the production line just in time for fitment. The greatest benefit of this system is it stops production staff chasing material, allowing them to focus on the task in hand. Siemens is also looking into how 3D printing can be used in the future. The vision is for depots to reduce stock holding and transportation cost by printing a part only when it is required. After leaving Krefeld, we visited the test facility at Wegberg-Wildenrath. Here people in the group were quick to spot one of the new South West Trains Class 707 units running around the track. Both manufacturing sites gave us an insight into the complete production of rail vehicles from raw materials to the finished product and also a taste of the trains and technology of the future. DB Systemtechnik’s technical centre at Minden was a fantastic visit where we saw how various specialist laboratories are used to test brakes, wheelsets and infrastructure. This subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn offers a complete range of railway technical services. Activities range from testing related to the specification and approval of new trains to acting as an independent verifying and acceptance body. Also, here was one of Europe’s two climate chambers, that can test trains in temperatures from -35oC to +55oC, and in up to 80 per cent humidity.

Unusual sights The tour also took us on a number of unconventional visits, the first being the Wuppertal Schwebebahn (upside- down railway). This suspended railway system transports a staggering 80,000 passengers/day and we were invited in for a tour of the main workshops. Here we saw three generations of cars, the highlight being the 1900-built Kaiserwagen, on which we had the privilege of taking a round trip of the network. The Schwebebahn integrates into a larger transport network and we finished the day at one of its trolley bus depots. It was interesting to gain an appreciation of how trolley buses work and to hear of both their benefits and challenges. Our last stop was at RWE Power, where a remarkable heavy-haul railway delivers 100Mt of lignite/year from mines to power stations that supply a significant proportion of the German grid. In order to keep the lights on, rail vehicles used on this private network have axle loadings of around 35 tonnes and a considerably wider loading gauge to the one we have in the UK. A trip to the open cast mine itself, to see the gigantic excavators at work, was the ultimate jaw dropper. Each day of the tour was fully packed, with site visits and travelling to the next destination. However, we still managed to include lots of social activities where we could share thoughts and experiences with the other engineers. As with most tours, the young members organised one of the evening’s entertainment. This year’s activity was a very enjoyable and, at times, competitive game of bowling.

We also had time to visit the castle at Wernigerode and just made it in time for the opening of the Christmas market in Aachen. At our final dinner, sponsored by Angel Trains, tour traditions were upheld with a rendition of “Old MacDonald”, sung in Latin. The tour ended with a visit to Antwerp station, where a modern station serving the Brussels-Amsterdam high-speed line has been excavated under this historic monument, after which most of us headed back to the UK on Eurostar. Overall it was a fascinating trip which explored a number of different aspects of the German Railway system and we would highly recommend it to engineers at any stage of their career. We would like to thank the IMechE, Felix Schmid and Bridget Eickhoff for a very organised tour, and Great Western Railway for supporting us on this trip.


Read more: Take a look around Hitachi’s Pistoia train production plant