The Rail McCoy


The UK’s current train-based transport revival, combined with an impending shortage of rail engineers, makes it a perfect time to pursue an engineering career on Britain’s rails.

From Civvy Street Magazine #46 (April 2014), Words: Rob Fletcher

One of the lasting and most impressive legacies of the Victorian era, Britain’s railways suffered from swingeing route cuts and dwindling funding during the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet the new millennium has witnessed something of a renaissance in the UK’s railway network, thanks to two of the most ambitious civil engineering projects embarked upon in Britain since the turn of the century, and the next few decades are likely to be a golden era for British railway engineers.

railweb2Most obviously the controversial plans for creating a £46.2 billion High Speed 2 (HS2) network, linking London to Birmingham by 2026 and to Manchester and Leeds by 2033, have undoubtedly been hogging the headlines of late and if this scheme goes ahead it will create huge challenges for its creators and equally huge opportunities for engineers – it’s not just train-spotters who are likely to benefit.

Even if HS2 is shelved, however, there are a number of other exciting projects underway, not least London’s ambitious £14.8 billion Crossrail construction project – which currently employs 10,000 people across 40 construction sites – is steadily approaching its planned completion in 2018. Moreover, north of the border, a railway to link Edinburgh to Tweedbank, south of Galashields, is currently under construction, bringing with it the creation of seven new stations along 30 miles of track – making it the longest new stretch of domestic railway to be built in Britain for over 100 years – and is scheduled for completion before you can say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

Meanwhile the existing 9,941 mile-long rail network is also not short of superlatives, including being the densest in the world. It not only provides hundreds of thousands of commuters with a means of getting to and from all the country’s major conurbations, but also delivers over 100 million tonnes-worth of freight each year. With so much literal weight bearing down on the network it can be no surprise that it requires ongoing attention from skilled engineers, who can work under pressure and in trying environments, and it is also no surprise that employers such as Network Rail – which employs 30,000 people – value the services of Service-leavers.

As the company reflects: “The skills and experience you’ll have picked up in the Forces are easily transferable to the kind of work we do here. The big connection is safety. You’ll know that keeping yourself and your colleagues safe is top priority in the Forces. And it is for us too. After all, millions of people depend on us every day to get them to their destination, safely.”

And within the field of engineering there are a number of specialist functions: maintenance, asset Information, track, buildings and civils, construction and signalling, power and communication.

“Depending on whether you’re used to a field-based environment working with big kit in all weathers, or whether you may have been involved in planning and analysis, strategic design, systems, or electrical engineering behind a desk there are plenty of different options available. Join us and we’ll give you every opportunity to develop a highly rewarding and long-term career, offering training and development that will make the most of your potential,” the company continues.

Case Study

Guy Wilmshurst-Smith, Network Rail’s head of professional development and training, explains a little more about the opportunities on offer. As a former Royal Engineer, who rose to become Commander 170 Engineer Group in Nottingham, he’s also particularly well-placed to explain the transition from being part of the Military to working in the rail network.

New Pictureweb“I served in the Army for 30 years and saw active duty across the world, including operational tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan,” he reflects. “I would have been happy to continue serving until I was 90, but I realised that this was not possible and I knew that, with Afghanistan winding down, I was unlikely to pick up another operational tour. I also knew that, after I turned 50, it was time to face the inevitable and when Network Rail offered me a job I decided to move on – part of the appeal is that it’s a vocational industry, like the Army, which has a wider purpose than just earning money. It is a job worth doing.

It was quite a shock at first and a real transitional challenge, it felt like I was doing a Colonel’s job with only the experience of a Second Lieutenant, as I had a new language to learn and lots of new acronyms, and it was extremely hard work having no experience to fall back on.

However, although it was a challenge, I also found it a fresh and invigorating situation to be in.  I found that the Army equips you with the tools for making complex decisions, the estimate process for example, which we’re honed to a high level and enables us to assess problems, come to logical conclusions and explain the reasons effectively to others. This is a rarer skill than I’d realised and one of the reasons why Service-leavers are successful when they leave.

It’s a brilliant time to be involved in the railway as there continues to be substantial investment which is likely to continue for many decades ahead.  A key element in this challenge is the need to grow the next generation of engineers, as there is a significant shortage throughout the industry.

Ex-military engineers are particularly sought-after by the railways. Not only are they very well trained but, more importantly, they come with the core behavioural values that are pivotal for the safety of the railways – the ability to work collaboratively, being customer-driven, comfortable with being held to account for their actions and have the courage to challenge unsafe situations. It is these behaviours that will define the future success of the industry.”