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On track to the rail academy

Progress towards a clear central strategy for the training of 'rail engineers' is being made, says Jon Masters Development of a central engineering training strategy appears to have advanced rapidly since the Strategic Rail Authority's January announcement of plans for a national rail academy. Universities, course providers and rail firms have put forward ideas and advice on how the strategy and its rail academy should take shape.

This progress is reinforced by new rail civil engineering courses which predate the SRA's announcement, and by a reasonably healthy academic infrastructure for rail training. The challenge now is to pull everything together, to benefit from the new momentum.

Former British Rail (BR) regional maintenance operations, bought by the likes of Balfour Beatty, Amey and Amec, became responsible for their own training, as did the engineering offices now part of the businesses of Scott Wilson, WS Atkins and others.

BR's training schools were also sold off and now operate as private concerns such as the Catalis Rail Training centres in Derby and Crewe. So the training is out there, but co-ordination is limited, quality varies and no industry standard exists for rail engineering training above the level of NVQs.

National occupational standards for rail engineering qualifications are an important objective of the central rail training strategy, which is being developed by Railtrack, the SRA and the industry subscribed Rail Industry Training Council (RITC). The rail academy concept has come from this initiative, with the effect of 'firing imaginations and interest from industry and academia', according to RITC chief executive Jackie Chappell.

'The rail industry generally has a very good attitude to training, but lack of external validation and benchmarking is a problem as some companies are better than others when it comes to skills development, ' she says.

'Employers recognise the benefit of national occupational standards and want all training under such a framework. London Underground, for instance, has said it will promote its use.'

Railtrack's future remains uncertain but it still has a vital role to play in the development of rail engineering skills. It has taken a lead, specifically in improving rail related skills development for civil engineers.

This has included participation in a multi-discipline training and education group formed in the East Midlands.

Under the auspices of the Association of Rail Training Providers (ARTP), the group, which also includes a number of consultants, contractors and course providers such as Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and the College of West Anglia, has provided the SRA with guidance and advice on the rail academy project.

Key recommendations so far have the academy at the centre of a national training strategy;

developing and maintaining occupational standards and course accreditation, establishing career development plans, and crucially, providing an umbrella organisation for rail training.

'Suitable training facilities are already available at places such as Luddington and Derby, which may form the hub of the rail industry in future. But we would like to steer the project towards an open distance learning system with a regionalised support structure, ' says Nottingham Trent University (NTU) senior lecturer Chris Page.

The SRA's £500,000 commitment to the national rail academy is unlikely to go far and the East Midlands group points to the need for substantial new money even to meet modest targets. Private sector funding should not be a problem though, if the rail industry is serious about training its engineers.

This is in no doubt, judging by the interest already shown by contractors and consultants.

Railtrack and contractors Balfour Beatty, Grant Rail and GTRM have supported NTU's development of the first BSc Railway Infrastructure Engineering degree.

According to Page, the rail engineering BSc was developed with industry after NTU asked Railtrack and Balfour Beatty what was needed in terms of rail training for civil engineers. Starting in September 2001, it provides the option for BSc civil engineering students to pursue a civils orientated rail engineering degree after their first year.

'Railtrack and its suppliers want civil engineers who know what effect their decisions will have on the rest of the rail network. Graduates need to have a good overall knowledge of railway operations and recognise the important interfaces between parts of the network.'

Page says Balfour Beatty is hoping to sponsor a number of students through NTU's rail degree and has been proactive in visiting careers centres to encourage school leavers to apply. Balfour Beatty is also sponsoring students through the West Anglia College rail civil engineering HND course, which contains a nine week block of rail training in addition to the HND civils material.

'We are also looking to make use of Kingston University's rail graduate apprenticeship which starts from September this year, ' says Balfour Beatty's personnel manager George Law.

'This will provide a civil engineering degree with rail training experience and NVQ units gained during work experience, which is where we can help out.

Intake of civil engineers to our rail business will increase and we need training to provide them with an all round understanding of the industry and environment they will be working in.'

INFOPLUS enquiries@ritc. org. uk Jon Masters and Mike Walter are with Barrett Byrd Associates

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