I am yet to hit my 30s, and as I took in the conference, and chatted to the delegates, it soon became apparent that I had not spoken to anyone of a similar age. Only when I encountered several Ph.D and Master's railway engineering students during the second day did I find evidence of the next generation.
Admittedly, India is an expensive place to travel to, particularly from the countries that dominate heavy-haul operations. And in a period of tighter budgets, some companies may have also chosen not to send junior representatives to India.
The IHHA sponsored the travel costs of three American students from the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana and four others from Swedish universities who all either gave a presentation during a session, or a poster on the morning of the final day. Mr Semih Kalay, vice-chairman of the IHHA, and senior vice-president of Transportation Technology Centre Incorporated (TTCI), which again had a substantial presence at the conference, said that he would have liked to see more young people in Delhi, but the high costs to the IHHA of doing this inevitably proved prohibitive.
The importance of developing ties with universities as the source of the next generation is not lost on TTCI, although Kalay does admit that the lack of young engineers entering the industry is a concern. The centre now has close affiliations with the University of Illinois, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech in the United States and the University of Alberta in Canada. TTCI has entered into a partnership with its local university, the Pueblo campus of Colorado State University, to offer a new Master of Science degree in engineering with an emphasis on mechatronics and railway engineering from this autumn.
Other organisations and companies have similar initiatives. Pandrol for instance has a three-pronged policy to recruit new people to its Worksop facility in Britain. Dr David Rhodes, Pandrol's technical director, says this involves attracting people that are already working in the railway industry, young graduate engineers who have recently left university or those who are recently entered other fields, and a day-release apprenticeship scheme where 18-year-olds with the right aptitude but who decided not to go to university can come into work.
However, like Kalay, he admits that even with this structure in place it is a struggle to recruit enough of the right people often because railway engineering is not considered a glamorous industry. "Finding senior engineers and management is not really the problem, it is getting the technicians and draftsmen which is the real issue," Rhodes says.
"We find that with school leavers that they are not interested in a career in the railway industry because they don't understand what it can involve. We are really facing an uphill struggle to persuade people that the industry might be for them."
What we are talking about here isn't a new revelation. It has been highlighted numerous times in the past few years, including in IRJ. However, with the situation apparently not improving, more needs to be done to address this issue. Put simply, the knowledge base required to achieve the aim of the conference's overall theme, enhancing capacity, is under threat.
I believe that we as the world's foremost international railway publication should play a role in this by actively engaging with railways, research institutions and universities. We can provide a platform for you to explain what you are doing to attract talent, which could potentially inspire others to adapt these ideas and practices to their own situations.
Our August issue will include feature articles on training and recruitment. So if you think you can contribute to this by sharing your experiences, please contact me. I would be delighted to discuss this with you further and help to initiate an industry-wide dialogue on what we can all do to improve the current situation and secure the future of the industry.
Your insights might even help to unearth a railway engineer of the calibre of Bill Wimmer. Wimmer was honoured for his 51 years of service to the United States railway industry, primarily with Union Pacific, when he was inducted into the International Heavy Haul of Fame at the closing ceremony of the IHHA conference.
During an emotional acknowledgment speech, Wimmer thanked his colleagues and peers in the industry for their support during his career. He also praised the work of the students who had attended the conference. He said that they are the future of the industry and he was excited to see so many in Delhi engaging with their peers.
The seven students certainly did impress, and their importance to the IHHA was clear in the special acknowledgment of their work during the closing ceremony. But frankly seven students is not enough. More sponsorship opportunities should be available to enable more young engineers to participate in these types of events. This would help to promote a positive image of the industry and could inspire others to choose railway engineering.
I do not doubt that these students are returning to their institutions this week with a fresh sense of inspiration about their research. They will also inevitably be talking to their peers about where they have been and what they have learnt, which can only be good for recasting the image of the railway industry as a dynamic and challenging engineering field. By offering more opportunities to participate, this positivity will spread to more institutions in more countries, so by the time the next IHHA event rolls around in Perth in 2015, and the organisation gathers again in 2017, we will see a few more of the faces of tomorrow mixing with today's foremost experts, which will only be of benefit to the industry's future.