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Safely delivering railway structure examinations

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Article by Joanna Thompson MEng CEng MICE, Founder and Managing Director, Inspire (Structures) Ltd.

To safely deliver railway structure examinations the industry needs qualified, competent people. One of the highlights of being a railway structures engineer is the opportunity to work on a wide variety of structures which exist on the network, but this also provides a challenge when bringing new people into the industry.

The UK railways were generally constructed in the mid-to-late 1800s which means that many of our structures are constructed from older materials such as wrought iron, cast iron, timber and masonry, and in forms not built today, such as arch bridges. These materials and structural forms are not typically covered in academic Civil Engineering courses which means that as an industry we have a responsibility to bridge the knowledge gap.

Join the industry and become competent
Network Rail has a competency standard for structure examinations (NR/SP/CTM/017, soon to be replaced by NR/L2/CIV/1000) which sets out a range of structure examination related competencies and the knowledge and experience an individual requires to be competent. These competencies are:

  • STE1: Manage structures so they remain fit and safe for person (this is being replaced by SNG01, SNG02, and SNG03).
  • STE2: Review results of structures examination and recommend actions where necessary.
  • STE3: Visually examine Minor Structures.
  • STE4: Examine the condition of Structures.
  • STE5: Examine the condition of Buildings.
  • STE6: Examine the condition of Tunnels and Shafts.
  • STE7: Examine the condition of Underwater Structures.

These standards require a combination of formal training and mentoring, followed by a competence assessment by an accredited Assessor.

Formal training
Two of our most popular courses are ‘Appreciation of Structures’ and ‘Examination of Structures’.

The Appreciation of Structures course is three days long and is designed as an introduction for non-technical staff. It provides fundamental knowledge such as structure types, examination requirements, and how to plan an examination.

Without a course like this how can we expect a manager to know which competency is required for which structure examination? How can a planner book track access if they don’t understand what is involved in the task?

The Examination of Structures course is four weeks long, though often delivered as two, two-week blocks – the first covering masonry, concrete and timber structures, the second metal and composite structures. Attendees on this course are typically those working towards an examiner competence (STE4, STE5, STE6, STE7) as it provides full training on structures and materials found on the railway.

The decisions taken by the engineers and examiners involved in structure examinations have a direct link to the safety of our railways. We must provide them with the skills to understand the significance of a defect and take appropriate action. When an examiner/engineer identifies such a defect they report it as an Urgent Defect. Hundreds of these are reported each year – each one an opportunity for action to be taken to protect the safety of our infrastructure and the users.

The next stage in the training process is Mentoring and this element is the responsibility of the employer. It is essential that an individual gains experience on a wide variety of structures whilst under the close supervision of a competent person. The period of mentorship varies dependent on the opportunities for experience, but typically is six to 12 months for a STE4 competency.

At Inspire (Structures) we are fortunate that we can provide our trainee examiners and engineers with a vast array of experience as we work all over the UK undertaking examinations on all structure types, from culverts to tunnels, and using a variety of access methods including rope access, diving, confined spaces working and CCTV.

Competence assessment
A competency assessment is undertaken by a qualified assessor and includes gathering a range of evidence such as reviewing the examinations undertaken by the individual, a knowledge check, and observing the individual carrying out examinations on site.
This then enables a decision by the assessor on whether the individual meets the criteria for the STE competence, so allowing the individual to work unsupervised.

Maintaining competency
One of the key changes in the new standard NR/L2/CIV/1000 (implementation date 4th March 2023) is that structure examination competencies have been aligned to the Network Rail Skills Assessment Scheme. The Skills Assessment Scheme has six regimes (1 to 6) that are ranked according to risk. The STE competencies are in Regimes 3, 4 and 5, and must be renewed every three years.

Although we have some brilliant examiners and engineers this will highlight any skills gaps which can then be addressed through our experienced in-house training team. At Inspire (Structures) we have developed a robust Renewal Assessment Process which is currently being rolled out.

In my opinion this is a positive change which will ultimately upskill the industry.

Career pathways
As an industry we are experiencing a shortage of skilled staff; at Inspire (Structures) we are addressing this by investing in our team to develop future examiners and engineers.

It is important to provide opportunity beyond the examiner role. We do this via a career pathway which provides a route from trainee examiner, to examiner, and then onto either an engineering pathway or a management pathway. Both pathways include a fully funded apprenticeship scheme resulting in either a HNC / HND in Civil Engineering, or a Level 5 Diploma in Leadership and Management.

Professional qualification
Professional qualification through a body such as the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) provides an internationally recognised mark of an individual’s engineering skills, knowledge, and experience. At Inspire (Structures) we provide support for routes to Engineering Technician (EngTech), Incorporated Engineer (IEng) and Chartered Engineer (CEng) from our existing professionally qualified engineers who are approved ICE Mentors.

In summary, our industry needs a small army of competent and dedicated examiners and engineers to ensure the continued structural integrity and safety of the vast array of structures on the network, from newly built to 1800’s heritage structures, incorporating some of the country’s most iconic structures.

If you consider forging a career which brings new challenges every day, then this could be for you…

Image credit: Inspire (Structures)

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