Rail engineering: industry sector overview
The rail industry is all about moving people and products. For passengers, the objective is to get people from A to B in the timeliest fashion possible. For products, it's about providing paths for freight trains so suppliers can transport their products using the railway rather than lorries, hopefully alleviating congestion on the roads.
A rail network is made up of train stations across the country and the tracks that connect them, plus bridges, viaducts, tunnels, level crossings and signals. The train and freight operating companies run the trains, whereas a network operator such as Network Rail maintains everything that makes up the network to ensure that it's operating as effectively as possible.
Safety is at the forefront of everything that is done within the rail industry and influences the approach to any activities on the network, whether that's day-to-day maintenance or projects to improve the existing infrastructure. Reliability is also key as the more reliable the railway is, the more people will want to use it.
Trends and developments in the railway industry
Rail is an area that's got some good investment. One of the most high-profile projects currently is High Speed Two (HS2), a planned high-speed railway linking London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester.
Currently, there's quite a lot of investment in electrification, which is a far more environmentally friendly way to power trains than diesel. There's also a focus on increasing capacity to be able to run more trains. In the future, we're looking at the digital railway. This involves introducing a new signalling system to match the rest of Europe and using technology in a smarter way. For example, remote condition monitoring is a more efficient way of overseeing and managing the rail infrastructure. You can look at live information on a computer screen, which eliminates the need to send people out onto the network to gather this data.
What it's like to work in the rail industry
The nature of your work depends on the job you're doing. If you're on the front line keeping things running day-to-day, it's fast paced as you've got to respond quickly. Other projects have a slightly slower pace as there's more regulation involved. A relatively confined project can take up to three years from start to finish, while something more complex, such as a large station refurbishment, can take up to ten years. Engineers don't always work on projects from start to finish though.
Most projects require teams so you can expect to work with engineers from other disciplines as well as colleagues from project management, commercial and planning teams. You may also need to liaise with train and freight operators, the Department for Transport or the Office of Rail and Road, the industry's regulator.
The biggest challenge we face is access. The railway is in use a lot of the time and in order to do any engineering works we need to have access to the railway, which can disrupt train services. A lot of the work happens at night, at weekends, on bank holidays or at Christmas as there's not much running on the network at these times.
How to get a graduate engineering job in the rail industry
The best way into this industry is through a graduate scheme, although you can also look for entry-level jobs. As you progress up an organisation, your work will become less technical and more focused on people management.
The highlights of a career in the rail industry
- The buzz of successfully delivering projects that are in use every day.
- Working in a large but very close knit industry.
- The chance to manage your own team and see them develop.
The railway industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:
- power systems
Always check individual employers' requirements.
Thanks to Elen Jones for her help with this article. Elen is a programme engineering manager at Network Rail. She's been in the industry for 13 years and has an MEng in electrical and electronic engineering from Cardiff University.