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High Speed Rail college: Can it plug the gap?

A pair of progressive new colleges under construction may go some way to addressing the rail delivery skills gap while tackling diversity at the same time.

If addressing the skills gap continues to keep contractors awake at night, then those that operate in rail are perhaps losing the most sleep.

Foremost in the mind are the standalone projects – such as High Speed 2 and East West Rail – being touted as opportunities to identify more efficient delivery mechanisms.

Aside from these, the government committed £38.5bn to Network Rail’s Control Period 5 alone. Running from 2015 to 2020, this enormous chunk of funding aims to deliver enhancements and upgrades across the UK and represents the biggest investment in rail since Victorian times.

This unprecedented level of activity means skilled workers are in higher demand than ever before. Clair Mowbray, chief executive of the under-construction National College for High Speed Rail is confident she’s part of the solution.

Based at Birmingham and Doncaster sites, the colleges are being built by Willmott Dixon under a £52m contract. They are set to be ready for new students at the start of the academic year this September – an intake that will supply recruits to rail operators, contractors and Network Rail.

Funding for the two sites has come from central government, the Department for Education and local enterprise partnerships.

“It’s really exciting for the rail industry as a sign of real investment in skills development, but also for the education sector to start having a very positive focus on technical education and industry specific training,” Ms Mowbray says.

The college is part of the national colleges’ programme that offers courses starting at Level 4 higher apprenticeships (broadly equivalent to the first year of a degree) for people aged 18 and over. “The ‘trailblazer’ High Speed Rail and Infrastructure Higher Technician apprenticeship has been developed with industry to cover the breadth of the rail sector,” Ms Mowbray says.

Progressive training

Preparation for the course saw the college team liaising with the industry to ascertain skills needs for the delivery of mega-projects like HS2, as well as the modernisation of existing infrastructure. Ms Mowbray points to digital signalling and its associated traffic management as a prime example of a skillset that will be required on both of these.

But realising the full potential of digital rail for increasing capacity and frequency will mean more than just installing remote signalling.

“It’s really exciting for the rail industry as a sign of real investment in skills development”

Clair Mowbray, National College for High Speed Rail

Ms Mowbray says the courses will help address the rail sector’s need to use data more effectively. This will allow better preventative measures for both built assets and rolling stock, as well as training students to view railways as a complete holistic system.

Such a view, she says, could enable the accurate prediction of potential faults before they occur

While building information modelling will have a role here, the college is already developing a second trailblazer apprenticeship: the Digital Information Manager. This sprang from conversations with employers about using the data at their disposal to produce better information on their assets.

More from the Rail Special Report

“[Employers] need people that can not only input and get the outputs of data, but can interpret and analyse it to really inform what’s going on. At the moment there isn’t anything out there that is giving people the development opportunity to become experts in this area.”

Ms Mowbray is looking for companies that can help develop this, as it also has potential applications for the wider infrastructure sector and beyond.

From tiny acorns

Ms Mowbray says that diversity has been at the heart of the planning for the college. “Right from the get-go we wanted to design campuses that were going to be attractive to a [diverse range of] people.

“That [includes] making sure the buildings look appealing and aren’t big, dark monoliths, and we’re ensuring you can easily get round them in a wheelchair.

“We have lifts that you can use in the event of a fire. We’re supporting people so that they feel they’ve been thought about and that there isn’t anything that would put them off participating in the training.

“[Employers] need people that can not only input and get the outputs of data, but they can interpret and analyse it to really inform what’s going on”

Clair Mowbray, National College for High Speed Rail

“We’ve been working with all-female schools to make links and have helped develop school curriculums to prepare [students for] the college. We bring them round the site as it’s been developing to see how it works. We’ve talked to them about the design and operational elements and the technology they could be using.

“For me, it’s about redefining what we mean about engineering so that people see it’s no longer just the traditional high-vis and hard hats; technology is now driving a lot of that, which means that someone’s physical build shouldn’t prevent them from being able to participate.”

Anticipated student numbers for 2017 are “conservative” according to Ms Mowbray, with 50 attending the Birmingham site and another 50 at Doncaster. By year five, this is expected to increase to 1,200 across the two.

While the colleges may not represent a silver bullet for the rail skills shortage, the exhaustive planning involved should ensure they make a telling contribution.

Help us help you

Industry engagement has been pivotal for the delivery of the colleges, with organisations providing more than just advice.

Among these, water management supplier ACO Technologies donated more than £18,000 worth of drainage solutions and British Steel donated all of the rail tracks required for both sites. Meanwhile, engineer Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group worked with its suppliers to secure £300,000 worth of materials at no cost.

The college staff anticipate more donations such as power cars and bogeys on both sites. Ms Mowbray says the bill to furnish the college with real-world and up to date equipment would have otherwise run into the millions.

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