After a fairly ordinary journey to the London-based offices of the RSSB, little did I know the pace was set to change to warp speed in meeting Professor Simon Iwnicki, head of the Institute of Railway Research (IRR) at Huddersfield University. Since he was there primarily to meet colleagues we had no formal meeting room, so I found myself desperately trying to keep up with him, up and down the stairs of a local café which we decided was too noisy, jumping in and out of lifts and diving into different rooms back at the RSSB, until he thought of ‘using a contact’ who suggested the library, where we finally settled.

Wiry, keen eyed and clearly physically fit, Iwnicki isn’t one of those people who you imagine could be hostage to a bad night’s sleep, and with no time wasted on platitudes we move straight into talking about his forthcoming year of office as chair of the Railway Division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), a role which he is very clear will be devoted to addressing the ‘tremendous skills shortage’ that exists, especially in railway engineering.

As an academic, Iwnicki is better placed than most previous chairs of the Railway Division to have a clear picture of young peoples’ perception of the rail industry and whether they see it as an attractive career, and he points out the shortage encompasses academia as well as industry. ‘I see that when young people come to our open days at the university they have thought about automotive engineering – they’re all into motorsport so they’re keen to understand whether there are courses in that, as well as aerospace engineering. But not rail. In fact colleagues of mine have been trying to make railway engineering seem attractive to young people for a long time, but it’s high time now that we tackle this skills shortage for the industry.’

We’re constantly reminded by Network Rail that a fairly large part of the rail infrastructure is Victorian, and generally beautiful but nowadays, problematic. However that era obviously saw rail as a growing and exciting new industry. Could we ever get back to that? Iwnicki believes a ‘big part of the reason’ why rail has lost its allure is cultural. ‘The fact is that society has changed generally and men and women aren’t as polarised in the workforce as they were one to two hundred years ago. Other industries, sectors and professions have moved more quickly to embrace that than engineering, especially railway engineering. The gender balance in the UK is a problem but that’s quite different in other countries. In Russia for example, and in other Eastern European countries as well as Asia, engineering is seen as a very interesting and attractive career to come into and it’s very sought after by the best qualified people.’

I mentioned that the IMechE’s website featured a Royal Academy of Engineering report that found that young children are natural engineers but that the primary school system does not encourage that mindset, and that engineers are seen as ‘less intelligent’ (see box piece). Iwnicki seemed surprised but only to an extent. ‘I guess the problem is the concept of what an engineer is. Most other countries think of engineers as people who design and innovate and find solutions and use computer tools and so on, whereas in the UK an engineer is someone who comes to fix your fridge. And that’s a very deep problem for us in explaining what we understand an engineer to be. We tried using the term chartered engineer, but that proved a bit too complicated for a simple message.’

The good news, believes Iwnicki, is that we’re seeing a renaissance in the railways, perhaps because of some of the failings of other transport modes. ‘We have congestion on our roads and environmental issues are becoming much more important, so we’re seeing huge investment here, and in Europe, in high speed rail, in shifting freight off roads, and so again it’s starting to become an active industry. The problem is that there’s a kind of lag in that young adults coming out of school probably haven’t got that message yet so it’s important to encourage them to see rail as an exciting and challenging place to work.’

Railway universities

Iwnicki told me how in Russia they have universities based around specific industries, so there are ‘Railway’ universities. Maybe that’s the way things are going with the proposed High speed rail college, TfL’s sponsorship of the Greenwich UTC and Newcastle College’s Rail Academy, I wondered? ‘That’s true, we are I suppose starting to do it with the high speed college, and we’re certainly supporting that. I’m not sure about Railway universities. It tends to be done in countries with a more planned economy. In the UK it’s more that young people chose what career they are going to do and then the universities sort of align themselves to those aspirations. Maybe there are some good aspects of both types of system but I wouldn’t say theirs is a better system.

‘I think the problem is that you need a feedback loop and that is what’s missing. Young people in schools, particularly in Year 11, haven’t got a huge number of long-term influences on what career they chose. They see certain things on TV and talk to their parents who have certain careers, they talk to their peers, and maybe careers advisors, but they don’t see what’s happening three or four years down the line, and they don’t realise there are other exciting areas such as railway engineering.’

Is careers advice good enough? ‘No I don’t think it is. You know the advisors can only really advise on what their knowledge is, and if they happen to have had some involvement with real engineering that’s good, but it’s pretty unlikely isn’t it, and with railways even less likely, so they won’t really be well-placed to advise on that. Television has a role to play and there are some programmes which seem to attract young people’s interest in engineering – Scrapheap Challenge, Robot Wars, it’s not always exactly the message we want to get across but they are starting to get there.’

At university level, Iwnicki explained the IMechE is working with stakeholders including the Young Rail Professionals and RRUKA to put together a programme of visiting 35 universities in this coming academic year, ‘whereas last year we only went to seven of them to talk about railway engineering. So there are several barriers, for schoolchildren and undergraduates, to think about a career in railway engineering and we’re tackling those, albeit in a limited way at the moment, but trying to build it up further.’

The skills opportunity from HS2

For all else that might be right or wrong about it, HS2 must surely represent a huge and timely opportunity to change the perception of railway engineering? ‘It probably is’ agreed Iwnicki, ‘and it’s part of the change whereby rail is no longer seen as a decaying, declining industry but part of the solution to future environmental and capacity challenges and being able to get people to where they want to be – into the centre of cities or travelling around the world. And I think we’re already seeing HS2 provide a bit of that feedback mechanism I referred to, so that young people do, whatever we think of the political aspects, start to see HS2 as interesting and exciting, and recognise some of the challenges.’

It would be difficult to put a percentage on the number of schoolchildren Iwnicki would like to see go into rail engineering in the UK, but a figure of at least 10,000 new entrants has been generally proposed as needed, just on the engineering side. ‘In part that shortage would have happened anyway through our fairly ageing population within the rail industry,’ said Iwnicki’ ‘but with HS2, Crossrail and Hitachi bringing its centre of expertise here, we really do need a huge number of new entrants across the industry.’

And what if we can’t find that number? Iwnicki is thoughtful: ‘Again it’s the delay in the feedback loop which will mean the shortage will have to become quite acute before the message gets through and schoolchildren start to see there are some good salaries and stable jobs in rail, and maybe their parents will start seeing that and the message will get around. But it could become quite painful before that takes effect, and I suppose the only alternative will be that we import those jobs, as we are already in fact, which seems a pity that we can’t educate our own youngsters to take on these roles.’

A global outlook

The IRR recently announced the appointment of Dr Antonio Andrade from Portugal as a research fellow, and the press release mentioned the international nature of the expanding team. How important is that to Iwnicki? ‘It would seem strange to me if there was a boundary around just the UK as the types of challenges we face don’t see those boundaries. We apply for and are successful at getting European funding for lots of the work we do, and in fact we are worldwide in our outlook, working with colleagues globally.’ Does he travel a lot? Yes, too much sometimes. But I think you have to! I think we’re recognising that there are pockets of excellence outside of the UK and we need to learn from them, from the best, and the European funding is helping us to do that, certainly it is within academia and I think it is within the industry as well. ‘We’re now moving into the period of the Horizon 2020 Shift2Rail joint technology initiative aimed at revitalising the European rail sector and making it more competitive, and that’s attracting quite a lot of interest in the UK industry, which might be a good thing because it will encourage all the different players here to look and see what their colleagues are doing in Europe and how they’re solving some of the problems we are now having. I don’t think we can see ourselves as an island railway, we are integrated in many ways now with the rest of Europe and the world.’

An interactive job

Professor Iwnicki’s main research activities are in the field of wheel-rail contact and computer modelling of railway vehicle suspensions – according to his Huddersfield biography ‘a small and highly specialised area which has a major influence on the design of railway vehicles and track’. What attracted him to that? ‘I was sponsored to do a degree in mechanical engineering. Those were fantastic days of course when you not only got a grant, you didn’t pay any fees and somebody was prepared to pay you to go to university as well. So I worked for Chloride Motive Power in Manchester before and after my degree, but after a while saw a PhD advertised in London, and I fancied going there. The doctorate was sponsored by the National Coal Board, which shows you how old I am. It had a massive network of underground railways, which it claimed was bigger than the London Underground, running under the North Sea, so when the miners went down to the bottom of the pit they still had many kilometres to travel to get to the coal face, which took a significant amount of their time. They quite often went out on small narrow gauge trains and the Coal Board wanted to improve them so they were fitted with rubber tyres to get better traction and a better ride, and they were also trying to improve the way the tyres guided the vehicle, so my PhD was on that, and that’s what led to the wheel rail contact aspect. So I started with the tyre and the rail and then later on the steel wheel on the steel rail, which is the core of my work.’

Asked what he most enjoys about his job, Iwnicki feels it’s the interesting and varied set of challenges in research and education, and working with colleagues overseas with the common goal of solving those challenges. Asked what he doesn’t like, Iwnicki looks slightly put out but is disarmingly honest. ‘These are just the sort of questions we’ve been asking candidates at interview. I suppose being honest I sometimes feel there is so much to do that I don’t feel I have time to just sort of take a step back and take a more strategic view of where things are going with the research work that my team is doing, with the support we’re giving to industry or with the activities of the IMechE. Sometimes it is really needed probably and I regret that I don’t always have time for that, and I need to make time and that’s a weakness probably, probably in me and in the fact that everybody seems to be so busy, those working in engineering, those working in everything I guess.’

Vision for the future

If his ‘vision’ for the future could be summed up, what would it include…obviously that the skills gap is closed? ‘I think that’s got to be foremost – to be able to demonstrate to young people and to society in general that railway engineering is a fantastically interesting career with lots of challenges in different areas, where working together in teams can give you a really rewarding career with prospects for travel and for meeting people working on similar areas globally.

‘And taking a broader perspective that the railways are once again seen as the premier solution to society’s mobility problems, as they were in Victorian times. Railways can offer solutions that other transport modes have shown they are no longer capable of providing.’ I mentioned that Dr Andrade had stated in the Huddersfield press release that cars are catching up. ‘Yes, he feels there has perhaps been a little bit of complacency within the rail industry, that it has taken the view ‘We may not be brilliant at everything but at least on the environmental side we’ve got the credentials,’ but people in the automotive and aerospace area know it’s a weakness and are working very hard to close that gap. We are potentially a much more environmentally friendly mode of transport but we mustn’t rest on our laurels because it’s necessary for the future of the planet that we continue to improve.’