'Excellent prospects for pay, promotion, job security and satisfaction' – attracting rail talent

David Shirres

The IMechE's Railway Challenge fosters new talent
The IMechE's Railway Challenge fosters new talent

Britain’s railways now carry 3.5 billion passengers each year.

The mainline railway last carried such numbers a hundred years ago when the network was twice its current size. On such a complex, crowded railway punctuality suffers as knock-on delays from incidents are 70% of the total. London Underground also faces the difficult task of carrying 1.3 billion passengers, a 28% increase over the past 10 years. 

Improving punctuality is an industry priority. Enhancement projects, such as the work at London Bridge, have eliminated some bottlenecks, and research programmes are considering how to use the vast amount of operational data to optimise network performance. Network Rail’s “putting passengers first” initiative will devolve decision-making to new regions that are closer to its customers. This includes the creation of a strong regional engineering capability. 

Yet the rail industry faces a technical skills shortage which, according to the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), is 10,000 people over the next five years. This reflects a lack of engineers throughout the UK of 59,000 graduates and technicians each year, says EngineeringUK.

In the signalling, telecoms and rolling stock disciplines, 40% of the workforce are aged over 50 years. A recent survey showed that only 12% of rolling stock engineering roles are filled by women.

With increasing amounts of smart infrastructure and new trains with state-of-the-art
technologies replacing half the passenger rail fleet, the rail industry is entering the fourth industrial revolution. This increasing pace of technological change demands new skills, including those required for the successful integration of new rolling stock, signalling and communications systems.

A further rail industry problem is that in the immediate aftermath of privatisation, there was virtually no graduate or apprentice training. Moreover, a Young Rail Professionals study revealed that only 8% of graduates would consider a railway career. This is because railways are often perceived as old-fashioned, unexciting and problematic
as well as being subject to negative press. 

Yet the reality is that the railway offers engineers excellent prospects for pay, promotion, job security and job satisfaction in the UK and elsewhere, as rail’s resurgence is a truly global phenomenon. As Andy Mellors of the Institution’s Railway Division stated in his chairman’s address, railway engineering offers “the opportunity to work with awesome kit and great people where, not only is every day different, we can and do make a difference in people’s daily lives”. The diverse challenges offered by a railway engineering career are also evident at the numerous events throughout the UK organised by the Division.

These include the Future of Rail competitions, the final of which took place in Birdcage Walk on 13 May. Seven winners of heats gave 10-minute presentations to illustrate their involvement in a wide variety of railway engineering topics. With only half marks separating the top three presentations, the obvious talent of all participants indicates they have a great career ahead of them. 

Another event run by the Division’s volunteers is next month’s annual Railway Challenge. This is open to apprentices, students and graduates who must design and build a miniature locomotive and put it through a series of trials against various performance criteria that includes energy storage, traction, ride comfort and noise. This offers the opportunity to put theory into practice, overcome real challenges, learn from others and have fun. 

Various industry initiatives are also aimed at attracting future railway engineers, including the NSAR’s routes into rail initiative. There are also joint events with the National Railway Museum and the London Transport Museum. 

A recent report commissioned by the Railway Industry Association concluded that UK rail contributes £36 billion to Britain’s GDP, generates £11 billion in tax revenues and is associated with nearly 600,000 jobs. Yet a recent NSAR report concluded that growing skills shortages could potentially result in the loss of 20% of planned railway investment with a resultant annual £1.1 billion reduction in GDP. 

Recruiting and developing sufficient railway engineers is essential if rail is to deliver its full contribution to the UK economy. Those who respond to this call are unlikely to regret their career choice.

The Railway Challenge takes place from 27-30 June at Stapleford Miniature Railway. Find out more at

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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