Education: Money pours into the railways and a wealth of career chances for the young engineer arrives

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The Independent Online
There is a renaissance on the railways, where until recently investment had been crippled by worries over privatisation. For young engineers, there are opportunities everywhere. By John Pullin.

Some operators are short of drivers, having encouraged many to go after privatisation. But that is not the only skill in short supply on the railways: a lack of professional engineers, particularly signalling specialists, may delay the upgrading of the network.

That such a situation should have arisen is counter to Britain's engineering traditions. Engineers created the railways and, to a large extent, the railways created the engineering profession in all its diversity. Yet for the past few years, Britain's railways seemed to offer little to engineering graduates.

Jobs disappeared as the network contracted, and the pay for engineers was regarded as less than generous. But more importantly, chronic underinvestment and apparent political indifference severely reduced both technical and business opportunities. The impression of progress that sustains engineers perhaps more than any other profession was hard to discern.

Now, quite suddenly, all of that is changing. "The outlook is very good indeed," says David Morphet, director general of the Railway Forum, which brings together rail operators and the industry that supplies them. "We've been seeing growth for the past two years."

With the growth has come investment and better prospects for engineers: civil engineers responsible for maintaining and upgrading track and structures; electrical engineers dealing with signalling and rail electrification; mechanical engineers, employed more by equipment suppliers than the railway operating companies; and increasingly computing and systems engineers, in charge of complex routing, timetabling and revenue allocation systems.

Railtrack's graduate and recruitment training manager, Tony Cousins, says the railways have an image problem: "We're actually a very high technology industry in many respects, but people don't see us that way."

There are heavy demands on engineers. Railtrack, responsible for the track and the stations, contracts out maintenance upgrading work, and needs high-calibre engineers to take responsibility for supervising safety- critical work. It insists recruits work towards chartered engineer status, and all go through a rigorous secondment with a contractor or equipment supplier before they are considered anywhere near qualified.

Pressure on standards is rising. Morphet says: "The industry realises it is important to lift the threshold of the skills it employs. The rail industry, the freight industry and Railtrack all see they have a great opportunity that they're seeking to exploit."

Railtrack announced last week that its spending rose by 38 per cent in the six months to September, to pounds 520m: it is on course for the pounds 10bn in 10 years it indicated at privatisation.

The biggest freight operator, English Welsh & Scottish Railways, has ordered many locomotives - initially from the US, but the company's stated intention is to triple the freight business within 10 years, so no one doubts there is more to come.

Morphet takes heart too from indications that rail operators with short franchises to run routes are already seeking extensions. The implication is that they too will invest, but want the security of longer contracts.

Within the investment intentions are impressive schemes requiring innovative engineering, the upgrading of the West Coast Main Line, for instance, and the expansion of Thameslink through central London. Integrating the UK system with mainland Europe will mean huge amounts of civil engineering work, and big orders for rolling stock.

More work is likely if ideas about integrated public transport systems make progress. Government statements in this area, the RIA says, "are music to our ears". Across the sector, there is confidence that rail can only benefit from policies aimed at switching goods and people away from road transport.

Some ideas in this direction are already under way. Several more large cities plan light rail tramways and wagon are being developed to let lorries ride "piggyback".

At present, the emphasis is largely on squeezing more out of the present network. The main new railway planned at present is the Channel Tunnel Rail Link but there could soon be much more expansion and opportunities for innovation. "If we do see the development of rail then the point will come when the capacity of the existing system will be seen to be inadequate," Morphet says. That is a prospect that no railway engineer in Britain has been able to look forward to for a long time.