Most people do not have fond memories of British Rail's performance but, according to a recent report by consultant Scott Wilson, one area where BR excelled was in its training of railway engineers.
Unfortunately, the structured engineering education and professional development which BR provided did not survive the fragmentation of privatisation and Scott Wilson believes this is the root cause of the shortage of rail engineers.
'BR's training programme secured the succession of rail engineers and added to its stock of talent on an annual basis through national recruitment of trainees, ' says Scott Wilson Railways chief executive Hugh Blackwood. 'Without this type of training, the supply of experienced rail engineers has reduced dramatically, while experienced engineers have been lost through retirement or have become disillusioned.'
In the past, few degree or diploma courses have included railway engineering modules because BR's training scheme provided for this sector. But universities and colleges are recognising the need to incorporate rail engineering subjects into courses. Similar deficiency also exists in many professional institutions, which has made it difficult for them to offer the rail industry support.
Scott Wilson, like many other companies in the industry, has modified its civil engineering training scheme to include railway disciplines and has developed in-house schemes to enable engineers to gain experience of both signalling and overhead electrification technology.
'Opportunities for acquiring hands-on experience within the wider operational railway environment are limited as most companies tend to specialise in one aspect of railway engineering, ' says Blackwood. 'Most previous major training initiatives have failed because companies are unwilling to commit themselves financially because of the unpredictability of the rail market.
'There is little doubt that if future generations of railway engineers are to be produced, a new, structured approach to their education, training development and accreditation needs to be created.'
The company has drawn up an action plan to improve training opportunities throughout the industry. The consultant plans to recruit both graduates and school leavers as engineering trainees who will be put through a structured rail training programme.
'Rail-related training schemes could benefit enormously if greater cooperation between Railtrack and other companies working in the rail industry was possible, ' says Blackwood. 'By seconding and rotating staff with Railtrack and other companies, railway engineers will gain experience of all sectors within the rail industry which will reduce the fragmentation which currently exists.
'Railtrack will need to take more of a lead role in any new training programmes but it will also need the support of the whole industry if it is to succeed. The ideal way forward would be to create a national railway engineering resource centre to act as a focal point for education and training.'