The National Skills Academy for Rail forecasts technical skills shortages in the rail industry of around 10,000 people over the next five years. This is a particular issue for signalling, telecommunications and traction and rolling stock, where forty percent of the workforce is aged over fifty.

Furthermore, the increasing pace of technological change requires new skills. For example, making sense of the vast amount of data generated by low-energy sensor networks, Building Information Modelling (BIM), and the integration of rolling stock, signalling and communications systems to successfully deliver the digital railway. In addition, railways require sophisticated heavy mechanical and electrical engineering to propel and keep trains on the track at 200km/h and more.

Hence more technicians and graduates are required to meet this shortfall. This is a general issue for the UK engineering sector, which is estimated to require 87,000 engineering graduates a year over the next ten years. However, railways have a further challenge – they are perceived as old-fashioned, unexciting and problematic. This was illustrated by a Young Rail Professionals study that revealed that only eight per cent of graduates would consider a railway career.

Yet most railway engineers would consider their career to be satisfying as it offers fascinating challenges and the opportunity to work with great people, complex systems and awesome kit. If the industry cannot entice young engineers, costs will rise as expertise is imported and the investment programmes that will be needed to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for rail travel will be delayed.

Attracting talent is thus both an imperative and a challenge to which the industry must respond.

Engineers from the IMechE’s Railway Division responded by spending three days in the Leicestershire countryside to run their annual Railway Challenge at Stapleford. Our report on this event shows how over a hundred young engineers had to overcome demanding problems to enable their miniature locomotives to compete on various trials.

Although this was not without its frustrations, it offered the opportunity to put theory into practice, overcome real challenges, learn from others and have fun. It’s difficult to think of a better way to attract talent to the industry. Those who organised and ran this event are to be commended, as should be the companies who entered teams or sponsored them.

With plans to expand the competition from ten to thirty locomotives, there is scope for much greater industry participation. It would be good to see some more well-known companies participating in next year’s Railway Challenge.

The skills demonstrated by those at Stapleford included coding software for Arduino processor boards, using an automotive CANBUS network to link microprocessors without a host computer and integrating traction, energy recovery and braking systems. Such skills are needed throughout the industry, including the digital railway programme.

Making the digital railway programme a success is the subject of Paul Darlington’s report on a two-day conference hosted by the Railway Industry Association, Network Rail and the University of Birmingham. Much of this related to contractor engagement and procurement strategy relating to infrastructure work. However, despite the emphasis on the total railway system, there were few train operators or rolling stock providers present.

The expanding digital railway will also significantly increase wireless data flows. As we explain, this is one reason why GSM-R will need to be replaced with a new telecommunication system which is likely to involve LTE, 3GPP, 5G, mMIMO and ReefShark.   

Clive Kessell has also been to a digital railway conference, this one about Traffic Management Systems (TMS). His report shows that TMS can be successfully implemented, although it is a lot harder to do than many first thought, and that TMS means different things to different people.

Traffic management is an essential feature of the 57-kilometre Gotthard base tunnel’s control system, as we describe. In another Swiss tunnel feature, Clive considers why and how a new tunnel is being bored alongside the existing six-kilometres-long metre-gauge Albula tunnel, which is expected to open in 2022.

As well as tunnels, we feature bridges small, large and redundant. Nigel Wordsworth reports how Network Rail has launched a footbridge design competition, in conjunction with the Royal Institute of British Architects. On a larger scale, we explain how a new 1,500 tonne-underbridge was built off-line and then put in place so that part of the Worcester by-pass could become a dual carriageway.

Inspection of redundant bridges, and other structures on closed lines is now the responsibility of Highways England. Mark Phillips explains why and how this work is managed.

With Britain’s only high-speed line now fifteen years old, it’s time to think about its track renewals strategy. As Chris Parker explains, HS1 presents different challenges from conventional track renewals, although renewing track on low-speed lines can also present significant challenges, as illustrated by our report on the nine-day blockade to renew Newcastle station’s south junction.

As shown above, this month’s Rail Engineer offers its usual variety of features that we think paint an impressive picture of railway engineering. Hence, we would ask that, once our readers have read the magazine, they do their bit to attract youngsters to the industry by passing it on to a budding young railway engineer.


Read more: Extending Worcester’s Battenhall Bridge