Newcastle College’s Rail Academy, situated just off Felling Bypass in Gateshead, has the smell of an old-fashioned rail shed but there’s more to this building than meets the eye.
Inside this industrial-looking outbuilding is a classroom. One that is set to play a critical part of the country’s future investment in skills.
The college-run academy, which officially opened in March, is the first of its kind in the country and will be a regional hub for training and development for railway engineering.
It was designed to respond to the government’s ambitious plans to create a “truly world-class rail network” by pledging to make what it describes as “the biggest investment in rail infrastructure in the last 150 years”.
Developed with support from the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) and Network Rail, the academy will help the industry address regional and national skills gaps, support further job creation and ensure the vitality of the rail sector in light of a rapidly ageing workforce.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, praised the rail academy as being “a critical part of the future investment in skills” in a specially recorded message to mark its official opening.
He said: “The rail academy is an important initiative that will support the Government’s investment in the future of the UK’s rail infrastructure.
“Developing specialist training and skills is vital in creating the next generation of rail engineers and will provide opportunities for thousands of young people to develop careers in this growing sector. I would like to congratulate Newcastle College on this outstanding facility and wish all of the students every success in the future.”
The academy will serve all age groups, including young people looking to develop a career in the rail sector, those wanting to change career and employers who need to up-skill their existing work force.
It is able to blend all aspects of the rail environment under one roof, particularly for signalling, telecommunications, electrification and permanent way.
Full-time diplomas in rail engineering, suitable for all age groups, are currently available. Bespoke HNC courses and degree courses are also now being developed in conjunction with industry partners. There are also a wide range of industry standard courses.
Marc McPake, head of the rail academy, said: “The opening of the rail academy signifies the start of a new era in training for the next generation of rail engineers.
“I believe that what we have here is unique. We are helping to develop the skills that are needed by industry today, but also creating a pipeline of skilled people with the knowledge of the state-of-the-art equipment that we will see in the rail industry in the future.
“The Government is investing millions in our rail infrastructure and we are seeing massive innovations in rail engineering that must be underpinned by high level skills and training.
“We know that there is a huge demand for skilled workers and we must use this opportunity to inspire the next generation of rail engineers as well as support employers to develop their existing workforce.
“The rail academy is a great example of collaboration between industry and education.
“It’s important that everything we do is focused around the needs of employers as that is what will help us secure the future of rail engineering in the North East and create job opportunities for more and more local people every year.”
More than 70 students are now on the course but that will increase in years to come.
Twins Chris and Stephen Downes, 19, of Blaydon, Gateshead, are among the first to take up the course which will net them a string of qualifications that will help them into the rail industry.
Chris said: “It is a great facility and will help with the future of the rail industry. We are lucky to have it on our doorstep and be among the first to have the opportunity to be here.”
Stephen said: “We were on another course at first but this one sounded much more interesting, so we swapped. People who come on the course are the future rail engineers.”
Brother and sister team Simon and Samantha Davenport, of Seaham, County Durham, are on the course together.
Samantha, 16, was the first to apply and Simon, 23, followed.
Samantha said: “This academy provides excellent facilities for engineering training. I don’t mind getting up to my elbows in grease, it’s all part of he job.
“It is a male dominated industry but that doesn’t bother me. I have a girlie side but it doesn’t come out very often.”
Simon said: “It is a fantastic course as you get hands-on training. A company called ISS has already come and given 16 apprenticeships and ten of those are said to be guaranteed jobs.”________________________________
The Government has also confirmed that a £10m engineering centre of excellence is to open in County Durham next year.
The site will be close to Hitachi Rail Europe’s £82m 730-job factory at Newton Aycliffe’s business park with building work expected to start in the summer.
It will also be backed by the Department for Education (DfE) as a state-funded but independent school.
The development suffered a setback early last year when the DfE favoured bids from London, Peterborough, Lincolnshire and Lancashire, despite it receiving strong backing from transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, and former transport minister, Stephen Hammond.
However, despite this it was revived and received approval in August.