FOLLOWING decades of decline, the railway industry has arguably entered a new golden age in the 21st century. Ambitious plans for new rail projects are being proposed all over the world as, even in the face of a worldwide economic recession, governments and municipalities look increasingly to rail to solve their transport issues.
Yet there might still be a problem.
An ageing workforce coupled with a dearth of new talent to replace and further the latest technological thinking means that for certain projects there is only a small pool of engineers available. Soon it might be a case of first come, first served on certain schemes, preventing other similar projects from getting up and running even when the political will and funding exists.
Delegates at the International Union of Railways' (UIC) conference on railway training held in St Pölten, Austria discussed this dilemma in-depth with several presentations highlighting efforts to overcome the skills shortage.
It is clear that this is a problem running through the industry, from the railway operators, to the manufacturers, right down to the universities where young engineers are often inspired to choose a career on the railway.
In Europe the situation has become especially acute due to fragmentation of the large state railways in the 1990s and the subsequent loss of established training schemes for young engineers. With more and more private operators filling specific niches in the market, comprehensive training programmes across various roles in a railway's operations are no longer as widely available. Many established engineers are also being tempted to take their skills to lucrative markets such as the Middle East, to the detriment of European projects.
Nonetheless several initiatives are underway which aim to bridge this gap, such as the Skillrail project. Financed by the European Commission and supported by the UIC, the initiative established a European University of Railway (Eurail) in October 2011 which aims to offer research-based industry courses tailored to a specific need and overseen by the industry's leading academic experts.
Skillrail's coordinator Professor Manuel Pereira, from the department of mechanical engineering at Lisbon's Superior Technological Institute, says many academic courses are failing in the short-term to meet the direct needs of railways. In addition, when students first arrive in the industry they tend to have a rather limited knowledge of "real world problems."
"Eurail aims to support the idea that the railway sector needs advanced engineering education connected with research and technological development," Pereira says. "It is expected to enhance educational quality and relevance in the railway areas, foster the development of railway training and educational activities that complement the offerings of existing institutions."
Skillrail and Eurail's connection with the high-level expertise assembled in the European Rail Research Network of Excellence (Eurnex) scheme is crucial to delivering its programme. Launched in 2007, Eurnex comprises faculty from 47 higher education institutions in the EU member states offering railway-related courses.
In effect Skillrail and Eurail take this network to the next level by allowing these experts to bring their courses direct to those who require the training. The programme is not restricted by borders and as a result has the potential to facilitate universal international training programmes and an open training market for high-skilled jobs. It should also develop new training models and increase the exchange of information and knowledge.
Skillrail has identified possible training courses in all areas of the industry required up to 2020 according to expected technological, legal and market trends, and has already organised four pilot short courses focusing on asset management, rolling stock and railway dynamics, and energy efficiency. A business plan for the programme has been developed and Pereira says Skillrail's relationship with the UIC is crucial for it to gain access and acceptance by railways.
The next step for the programme is to secure support from railway manufacturers and the Association of European Railway Manufacturers (Unife), which Pereira says is particularly important due to a shift in research and development activities from national railways to the industry.
"In order to remain competitive and deliver top-quality solutions, manufacturers have established their own training programmes to provide the necessary technical knowledge, effectively outsourcing this to academia which means their scientific and technological data is at the centre of what is being taught," Pereira says.
Taking the lead
Indeed, Bombardier's Swedish division has taken the lead on a training programme intended to boost the number of young engineers choosing a career in railway signalling.
Mr Per Olofsson, training officer at Bombardier Rail Control Solutions, says that he and Dr Anders Lindahl from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, felt the need to bridge a gap left by the abandonment of a railway education programme led by Sweden's former infrastructure manager, Banverket.
The programme, which commenced in 2007, targeted vocational and secondary schools offering courses in railway engineering and promoted job opportunities. However, Olofsson says this changed when Sweden's new transport body Trafikverket, formed in 2010, said it was not responsible for supporting railway education.
Unwilling to let this education initiative die, Olofsson says that 40 different organisations ranging from schools and suppliers to contractors were invited to two conferences in 2011 to discuss how best to proceed. This resulted in the establishment of a working group and the birth of the Swedish Rail Skill Forum (SRSF) in April 2012.
SRSF has four primary objectives: to analyse market needs and available resources, to influence the market and decision makers, attract young people, and define and align education to meet demand. It is now providing a direct connection between Sweden's train operating companies, the Swedish Association of Railway Contractors, KTH's Railway Group, Bombardier, the Swedish Construction Federation, the Swedish Transport Administration, Infranord and Vectura, and educational institutions such as St Eriks gymnasium, Trafikverket's Railway Training Centre, Folkuniversitet, and Stockholm Institute of Technology.
This scheme complements Bombardier and KTH's Railway Signalling Advisory Council which has run three courses providing direct railway signalling education since 2007.
About 35 students are engaged in the programme which offers participants the chance to take part in summer employment and 10-week long apprenticeships. Olofsson says the job prospects make it possible to overcome the stigma that the railway industry is not a "cool" area to work.
"The students in the programme hear rumours that they are likely to get a job as an engineer if they participate," Olofsson says. "This makes them more interested in taking part and to actually consider railway engineering as a career path. Often the cheapest advert for these types of schemes is that there will be a job waiting at the end of it."
While vocational schools remain training grounds for lower-skilled positions, universities are the source of high-skilled and technical expertise. But as the Bombardier scheme and Skillrail highlight, there is a lack of quality railway-based education available. Olofsson points out that there are only limited books available on signalling, with none available in Swedish, so the courses are taught in English.
This problem is also evident at American universities.
Dr Pasi Lautala, assistant professor of railway engineering at Michigan Tech, says there are only a handful of dedicated railway engineering professors in the United States. Funding for rail-focused engineering content at universities is also around 1% of that for road, and railways are often covered in general mechanical and civil engineering classes, with many of the professors having limited railway engineering experience.
As a result Lautala and Dr Christopher Barkan, director of the Railroad Engineering Programme at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, approached the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association (Arema) about the issue. Its response was to establish the Railway Engineering Education Symposium (Rees) which was first held in 2008 and again in 2010 and 2012.
US engineering faculty are invited to attend the event which includes two days of classroom content and a half day site visit. The symposium provides an introduction to railway engineering concepts and details of potential course content so participants can at least teach the basics at their respective universities. Nearly 30 professors have attended each symposium, and many have added railway-specific coursework to their engineering curriculum.
Several other initiatives are underway to enhance railway engineering's presence on campus. Arema student chapters are increasingly popping up at US universities, with more than 10 now providing a direct link between students, faculty and the industry, while a programme is underway to unite universities offering railway education.
NURail, a seven-university consortium led by the University of Illinois, which was selected by the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) as one of its 10 national university transportation centres in 2011, and has received a funding boost as a result, was heavily involved in the 2012 Rees forum. It believes that by pooling resources and its collective way of thinking will be more beneficial to the industry. It is also providing a platform for collaborative research and is boosting direct links with railways all over the world.
Inevitably funding is a major issue for these schemes which are often led by volunteers. "It is done from the perspective of something that we should do for the long term," Olofsson says. "I am doing this voluntarily because I see it as being important for the future health of the industry."
Mr James Grundy, ambassador and coordinator of Britain's Young Rail Professionals Network (YRP), has also dedicated much of his spare time to getting the group off the ground. It now boasts an online network of 1500 members and holds regular networking dinners and practical events, including an ambassador scheme, which have been heralded as a major success.
Grundy told IRJ that he hopes the industry will continue to back YRP. He says it needs a full-time presence either as a charity or an affiliation, but that it is ultimately up to the industry to take greater responsibility for YRP as an important body that unites its young people and future leaders.
"We see ourselves as the glue between young people and the industry and we hope to continue to bring both together," he says.
Indeed, as the initiatives highlighted in St Pölten demonstrate there are wide-reaching efforts underway to attract and secure the next generation of railway engineers. However, they need sustained support, without it and an understanding of the importance of these initiatives, the prospect of a future skills shortage might not be overcome, which would be disastrous to the future of rail transport.