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Elevate | How to get ahead in rail

great north rail project

To start Elevate, New Civil Engineer’s careers week, we take a look at the jobs market for engineers working in rail.


Network Rail is expected to spend £6bn on capital projects in 2018/19 according to a recent forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility. This is then set to increase over the following five years as Control Period 6 kicks in.

There are some serious projects at various stages across the UK. Crossrail will soon connect Berkshire and Essex through central London. By 2022, the Great North Rail Project will have delivered a range of improvements to track and stations across its region.

And then there is the £55bn High Speed 2 scheme. Main civil construction work is expected to start on the rapid rail link within the next year.

Beneath the headline-grabbing mega-projects is a wealth of local maintenance, renewal and replacement work in all areas.

Traditional requirements

A degree related to civil engineering is a good building block for a career as a consulting engineer in the rail sector. You can also look to become a civil engineering technician, supporting chartered engineers on rail projects. The National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering supports apprentices into the sector.

Chartered status is an advantage when looking for rail consultancy roles, as is a willingness to work around the country as projects come up.

PwC UK leader of industry for capital projects and infrastructure Neil Broadhead – a civil engineer and ICE member – says: “When I work with clients in the rail sector, they are looking to augment their skill sets for the future. Having the right technical discipline – the right engineering degree with the right areas of focus – is really important.”

How roles are changing

Broadhead says the traditional skills and qualifications are an important foundation but modern rail engineers have to go a step further.

“You also need a high degree of commercial awareness,” he says. “You need to understand the client’s business model – how the rail industry works. It’s important for engineers to know how they are contributing value to the project they are designing.”

Digital literacy is important as Network Rail looks to embed modern technology into its infrastructure to improve efficiency.

Collaboration skills are also important in the modern era.

“The pace at which we are creating new delivery partner models and working in new ways enabled by technology means engineers need to demonstrate a high competency in the ability to engage colleagues and bring them on a journey with them,” says Broadhead.

Predicting the future

“We talk about the internet of things, the fourth industrial revolution, smart infrastructure – to be a successful engineer in the future, you will need to embrace technology and everything it can do for the civils industry,” says Broadhead.

“That might be virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, embedding robotic process automation into standard routines.”

While some high-value jobs will be filled by engineers with the right attributes, others will disappear, he warns.

“In the future some of the roles engineers undertake today will be undertaken by machines so you need to think carefully about the skills you are investing in and whether they will be relevant in the future.

“Understanding commercial models, being able to collaborate, these types of skills will survive. Innovative design will remain a human trait; thinking creatively is where engineers should focus their skills.”

Career prospects

“All the traditional roles still exist,” says Broadhead. “Heads of technical discipline, programme controller, systems designer and so on – but it is common now for us to find there is a chief technology officer in a client organisation; a transformation director; heads of digital.

“There is a significant amount of capital invested into rail infrastructure and there will continue to be a demand for innovative engineering skills. If you can have technical disciplines so you understand static load on a structure but you also bring disruptive innovative thinking you have got more value to an employer.”

Jobs exist across the UK and well beyond.

“This is a global market and being culturally and geographically agile and adaptable is really important.”


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