Barry Connelly, Strategic Adviser for Engineering Development at the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London (CONEL), explains how the London Rail Academy has responded to the challenges of Covid-19 and continued to deliver high quality training for the rail industry.

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the rail industry with the Government’s own Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce (STAT) warning that ‘the implications for skills, training and employment cannot be underestimated’. Both colleges and employers must collaborate even closer together and invest in the future as the rail industry will be vital in helping rebuild the country after the pandemic. At the end of last year Transport Minister Andrew Stephenson suggested that the Covid crisis had strengthened the case for the HS2 rail link to support the UK’s economic recovery. The high-speed rail link has been controversial, particularly among environmental campaigners, but the National Infrastructure Commission has clearly stated that rail will play a major role in helping the UK meet its target of zero carbon emissions by 2050. Engineering giant Siemens has further stressed the important of nurturing young talent in rail engineering with the announcement that it is to create 700 skilled jobs in engineering at its new £200 million plant in Goole in Yorkshire.

The London Rail Academy (LRA) was launched at the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London (CONEL) in 2016 and has grown year on year. We currently train more than 250 rail-engineering apprentices and our clients include Siemens, Bombardier, Hitachi, TfL Eurostar, Alstom, Thales, London Underground and DLR. The apprenticeships are managed in collaboration with the National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR), which in 2018 and 2019 named LRA as its Training Provider of the Year following nominations by the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR). NSAR said: ‘Through its investment and actions, both with the industry and with the local community, LRA provides quality apprenticeship programmes to employers within the rail industry.’

Industry leaders have praised the college’s commitment to the rail industry and described it as a ‘first class’ facility to support significant growth and development of the sector. LRA has been built on these partnerships. By working hand in hand with employers to understand and deliver their skills training requirements, the academy has been able to create company specific, industry standard apprenticeships. This has been supported through continuous investment by CONEL and employers to provide improved workshops and equipment identical to what apprentices will use back at the rail depots. This will become even more prevalent and important when producing the next generation of rail engineers during the pandemic.

Just before the latest Covid lockdown, LRA took delivery of a new Docklands Light Railway carriage. It was the latest addition to the superb engineering facilities at the college and a sign of our commitment to deliver the best possible training to rail-engineering apprentices. The 15-metre-long carriage is a full-scale replica and was built for the launch of a new fleet of trains due to come into service in 2023.

It will provide our apprentices with an experience that is as close as it gets to working on a real train. The first Covid lockdown was a steep learning curve for the college and the London Rail Academy quickly moved over to online learning and adapted to the ‘new normal’ to minimise disruption to its programmes. Employers were contacted and immediately gave their approval to supporting remote sessions. Workshops were deep cleaned, workstations were built and guidelines were developed to keep apprentices and staff safe. Start and finish times were also altered to avoid travel and peak times and PPE, sanitiser and wipes were provided throughout the day.

During this period and subsequently we have continued to communicate to both apprentices and employers. One example of this was evident when it came to delivering the practical of the programmes. The awarding bodies had allowed colleges to assess practical subjects by alternative methods, but the employers requested that we wait until apprentices were able to return to college. Much of the theory was moved forward so it could be taught online.

As restrictions eased, we were able to teach again in the classroom and cover more practical elements of the apprenticeship in the workshop while wearing masks and social distancing wherever possible. College staff continued to support companies, with many working through the summer break to prepare the workshop for socially distanced classes and deliver the delayed sessions requested by the employers.

Covid testing has recently begun on site with every learner and member of staff being tested each week. The digital divide has been one of the biggest challenges. Two thirds of our students and apprentices come from the bottom three bands of social deprivation and we found that a third shared a computer with their family and some had no technology at all. With the support of government funding and fundraising we have been able provide laptops to many learners from disadvantaged families.

LRA apprentices start on a one-year performing engineering operations Level 2 apprenticeship to give them the technical skills needed to progress to a two-year rail engineering Level 2 or Level 3 apprenticeship. The academy introduced a Level 4 rail apprenticeship for the first time this year. CONEL is part of Capital City College Group that also comprises City and Islington College, Westminster Kingsway College and apprenticeship and training provider Capital City College Training.

Rail apprentices tell of their experience training at LRA during the pandemic.

‘I would much rather be in college in person, but overall learning through classes on Teams has been good and not too different to being in college. The lecturers we have had have done a great job in setting things up for online learning in a very short period of time.’ – Chris Redshaw, Bombardier apprentice.

‘My expectations have been exceeded. Although online delivery can pose many difficulties, the delivery has been exceptional. My teacher has been on hand to help at any time during the day. I greatly appreciate the feedback and help our teacher has provided.’ – Bradley Lewis, Alstom apprentice