Last week the government announced that the headquarters of the new National College for High Speed Rail will be located in Birmingham, with a satellite site in Doncaster. This is good news for the railway industry and good news for the two regions. It’s also good news for the University of Birmingham, which will play a key role in the work of the college through its Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE).

The government’s brief for the competition spoke of the new college as an ‘elite institution... defined by its focus on progression to a higher level of study... by its employer leadership... by its role in setting industry standards... and by the quality of its provision, delivered with the very best in teaching and specialist equipment’. For all of us involved, that means the hard work starts now.

One might suggest, quite reasonably, that the UK already has a strong skills base in railway engineering and management, developed on the job through apprenticeships, as well as on specialist training courses at colleges and universities. What’s so special about high-speed rail that it needs its own specialist college?

Part of the answer lies in the sheer range of work that goes into a railway system – a fact borne out by the multidisciplinary nature of BCRRE at the University of Birmingham. A railway needs technical and organisational systems that are both complicated and complex. As speeds increase, both the intricacy of tasks and the workmanship demanded grow rapidly because of the much tighter tolerances needed to operate safely. Components, signalling, control and communications systems must work more quickly and dependably if the high-speed lines are to carry the traffic needed to justify their existence.

The many disciplines involved create a requirement for people who are able to operate both modern, high-technology systems and structures that are over 50 years old; people who can do this within a constantly varying environment over hundreds of miles, all day, every day; people who can understand the many interactions and the way in which a railway system is affected by nature and third parties; people who are educated and trained and who can carry out tasks safely, quickly and efficiently; people with specialist skills and an understanding of the nuances involved in high-speed rail. That is why we need a specialist educational establishment.

But how do we achieve the elite institution expected of us? Marrying the timetable for the construction of HS2 with the timetable for developing a curriculum which meets the needs of the awarding bodies and provides valuable skills is going to be the first challenge facing the college’s governing body. The multiple stakeholders must be brought together to agree curricula that will meet the needs of the high-speed rail industry and the learners.

Meeting the immediate skills needs of HS2 is straightforward, since the spectrum of skills and the number of future staff have been identified in a Manpower report by the HS2 Leaders Group. In the longer term, a strategy for the 2020s and 2030s must be addressed at this early stage to ensure the right education and training policies are established now and that high-quality staff are attracted into satisfying, long-term careers. As a result, education and training must be informed by cutting-edge research and development from around the world. Clear opportunities for the learners must also be established across the educational spectrum, for school leavers through to our own undergraduate, postgraduate and research degrees and into appropriate careers within the industry.

Added to this, an important initial activity will be to educate the staff in Birmingham, Doncaster and the many contributing colleges. To this end, we are in the process of creating a postgraduate certificate in railway education and training, with particular focus on high-speed rail.

Having been awarded this college, Birmingham and Doncaster have a unique opportunity to create a tertiary educational establishment which could become the preferred destination for organisations around the world that want their staff to gain high-speed rail knowledge, skills and knowhow. A step-change is required in the quality of training and education for current and future railway staff, both for conventional and high-speed rail. Close collaboration between the railway industry, colleges, the public sector and universities will lead to success on both the national and international stage.

Here at BCRRE, we are ready to face that challenge.

Dr Jenny Illingsworth
Operations Manager of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, University of Birmingham