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A new course in Railway Technology offered by HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht and developed with industry partners is aiming to encourage young people to enter railway engineering. Roepesh Bechan, coordinator of the minor in Railway Technology at HU, and André van Es, senior consultant at Arcadis, outline how the course came about, the challenges faced, and their future goals.
ON September 20 2014, Netherlands Railways (NS) celebrated the 175th anniversary of the country's first railway journey with a commemorative train repeating the maiden voyage from Amsterdam to Haarlem.
From these humble beginnings, the Dutch network has developed to become one of the most intensively used in the world. Today it carries approximately 5 million passengers per operational track-km annually compared with an average of 1.8 million across Europe every year. The current railway meets requirements for safe operation. But with the system dating back to a period of less intense traffic and fewer trains, maintaining this aging infrastructure to its optimal condition is a massive task.
As a result a new generation of multidisciplinary railway engineers, which will continue to develop and introduce the latest technologies into a complex railway system, is required to keep up with the demands of a rapidly changing and increasingly global society which demands transport by rail.
However, following our visits to InnoTrans and the 2nd UIC World Congress on Rail Training in recent years, we noticed that there is a shortage of qualified railway professionals across the world to deliver these technological advances. Many sectors also face the prospect of a shortfall in talent in the years to come.
A lack of suitable railway engineering courses at universities is a major cause of this impending problem and a real area for concern. In the Netherlands training is only available through in-house courses for existing employees, while there is only one railway-specific course available at a Master's level at the Technical University of Delft's Civil Engineering department.
Recognising this impending issue, Arcadis a member of NLingenieurs, a Dutch association of consulting engineers, took the initiative to propose a solution. They contacted faculty in the Engineering and Design department at HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht (HU), and suggested the concept of the minor in Railway Technology.
Subsequent collaborative efforts between HU faculty, staff at Dutch infrastructure manager Prorail and Arcadis led to the development of a full-time course which aims to achieve two primary objectives: attract new young people to the railway industry who might continue developments in railway technology; and prevent the loss of knowledge and experience as current railway industry employees reach retirement age.
The course is already producing results. Since the first group of undergraduate students began work at HU in September 2012, 51 students have participated, and 48 have successfully graduated. There are currently 15 students enrolled, and of the first cohort of 16 students, five have taken a job within the industry, while some of the others are pursuing further studies in rail-related subjects. In addition, one student is now working for Arcadis as a mechanical engineer after developing an improved dropper for a catenary wire clamp during an internship. The solution does not require a temporary binding and offers an assembly cost saving of 10%.
The course targets students with an inherent interest in railway technology and those with a general interest in mobility. We promote the course at twice-annual university open days, two engineering open days, and a minor market day. We are also finding that some of our new students are directed to us by past participants who have reported a positive experience.
Many of the students that sign up for the course either have family already working within the industry or have an intrinsic interest in railways. However, a student's background and field of study is not an obstacle to an application and we have attracted students in fields ranging from engineering and landscaping to business engineering and safety and security management studies. Indeed we want students with a range of experience and ideas to provide a platform for fresh thinking in developing railway technology and rail-related systems suitable for the 21st century railway.
The minor in Railway Technology is currently part of the existing engineering programme at HU meaning that we are benefiting from the university and engineering department's facilities. This relationship also helped us to start the first course relatively quickly.
The minor relies on partnerships with companies active in the Dutch railway industry, which are primarily engaged in managing, designing, constructing and maintaining railway systems (see panel). Their knowledge is adapted to the needs of the students as well as HU's policies, and each company supplies the course with material on specific subjects. All of this material remains available to the students through a university-controlled website which excludes sensitive information, while the students are encouraged to network with each other and those in the industry via a Facebook page.
The programme covers a broad range of railway subjects. In the first semester students study railway traffic engineering, railway system engineering, and railway turnout construction as a five-day internship. In semester two they are taught railway design, railway construction and railway maintenance for both heavy and light rail systems. From completing each of these units, students on the course are expected to achieve the following learning outcomes:
In addition to supplying information, our industry partners offer students first-hand experience of railway engineering through access to organised field trips and internship opportunities, such as the turnout internship. One of the collaborating partners also agreed to supply all of the students with the necessary safety gear for all outdoor activities, while the students are required to pass two mandatory railway safety courses prior to the start of the course.
During the first semester of the course, students use the facilities at Rail Infra Opleidingen (Rio) under a collaborative agreement between HU and the Amersfoort-based company. Rio features several well-equipped laboratories and is primarily used to train and test railway technicians in a broad range of infrastructure-related specialties. Rio recreates actual situations found on the Dutch railway at both indoor and outdoor laboratories where students can practice and experience electrification and signalling installations, and communication systems among others in a safe and controlled environment.
Due to the course's range of complex subjects which are not necessarily related, we began the programme in 2012 with 43 specialist instructors. Each has their specific area of expertise and all work in the field as professional advisors, asset managers and engineers responsible for designing, constructing or maintaining railway systems. They understand the life-cycle of railway systems, can evaluate railway performance, and are able to link engineering and technology to societal and economic benefits, a critical element of the course.
However, coordinating this team was an enormous task and the students soon voiced concerns about working with someone new in every subject taught. In some areas they wanted continuity while it was clear we had to improve the ratio between teachers and students. We also found that not every specialist was a born instructor. Some found the transition to teaching students instead of professionals difficult. We subsequently introduced an introductory didactic skills course to all instructors to ease this transition and improve the level of instruction on offer.
From the initial framework to the selection of subjects and the acquisition of course material, setting up a course in this field has been quite a challenge over the past three years and it has required a considerable amount of work. With the framework and team of dedicated teachers and partners now in place, we are looking to develop the course further to cover an even broader range of specialised railway engineering subjects, including those that look at ERTMS, where there is a real shortage of specialist engineers.
In this globalising world, we too need to expand our vision beyond our borders and look for potential opportunities in the international market. One proposition is offering the course in English. We are also looking to establish relationships and ultimately partnerships with universities in other countries for co-creation and to promote our railway courses, initiate exchange programmes, and develop study materials for railway systems used in Europe and around the world.
A final step is to integrate research from universities, the railway industry and other education institutions to jointly create a platform for railway knowledge, research and development. This would provide our students with even greater opportunities to challenge themselves to overcome many of railway engineering's unanswered questions.
Through our work at HU we have established relationships with the railway industry and built a framework from which our instructors can pass on their knowledge and expertise. This, we hope, will continue to attract well-motivated candidates who will ultimately take up jobs within the rail industry and plug the current skills gap. But this is just the start. For us the challenge remains to expand this railway course nationally and internationally to benefit the wider industry well into the future.
For more information (in Dutch) on the minor in Railway Technology visit http://www.studiekeuze.hu.nl/los/Techniek-en-design/Minorrailtechniek.aspx