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Rail engineering: industry sector overview

Rail engineering: industry sector overview

Engineering jobs in this sector don't just involve trains and tracks. There are many components to the system, all of which need to be maintained and improved.

The railway is a system created by the combination of every engineering discipline. Its single purpose is to provide transport for people and freight that is safe, effective and affordable. The main components of this system are trains, track, bridges, earthworks, drainage and environment, electrical power systems and fixed plant, train control systems, telecoms and data management. As the system is constructed, maintained and operated by humans, ergonomics also plays an important part in engineers' designs.

The business challenges are asset maintenance, renewal and improving each of the main components outlined above, but the greatest challenge is optimising the different systems. For example, a higher performing train may be heavier and use more power, which will result in different stresses being placed on the rails and therefore the way trains and track interact affects both systems.

Trends and developments in the railway industry

The current challenge of railway engineers is three-fold:

  1. To maintain and improve today’s railway to meet the business need for improved performance at a reduced price.
  2. To design a railway for the future and, in doing so, solve how to change from today’s systems that include components (such as bridges and viaducts) that may be 150 years old.
  3. To embrace technology to allow us to run an utterly reliable seven-day railway to play an increasing role in the country's transport needs.

A specific initiative is currently changing the way that the railway is maintained, from an approach we call ‘find and fix’ to one of ‘predict and prevent’. This is about devising means of examination using new technologies and creating models of the impact of age, wear and climate to work out optimal work regimes, including when to renew.

What to expect from a career as a rail engineer

The working environment for engineers varies hugely. During their careers engineers will find themselves working alone, in small teams or project teams of a hundred or more. You could be developing products, managing a part of the railway system or engaging in a construction project ranging in size from a small bridge through to a new control system for a major conurbation.

How to get a graduate job in rail engineering

To succeed in the railway sector, engineers need above all to be able to take decisions and accept responsibility. This works at all levels from front-line maintenance where you may decide whether assets are fit for purpose and manage a workforce in a safety-critical environment, through to those engineers designing new assets that will provide for the future needs of the travelling public. To gain the breath of knowledge needed to move into senior positions you must expect to take up roles doing maintenance, design, construction, people management and research in the first few years, and some personal mobility will be essential.

The highlights of a career in rail engineering

  • You can make a difference.
  • A real opportunity to take responsibility and make decisions.
  • You can apply engineering expertise in a business management environment.

The railway industry seeks graduates in...

  • Civil/structural
  • Control
  • Electrical
  • Electronics
  • Environmental
  • Materials
  • Mechanical
  • Power systems
  • Telecoms

Always check individual employer’s requirements.

Thanks to Jerry England for his help with this article. Jerry is group asset management director at Network Rail.