Fast-track engineering

London's a busy place - its underground train system moves 4 million people every day!

The underground rail network was built by engineers 150 years ago and Ian Rawlings has to use all his experience to keep trains moving smoothly while updating the trains, tracks and signalling systems at the same time - a difficult, important and rewarding job!

Ian took Tomorrow's Engineers behind-the-scenes at Neasden railway depot - he showed us the new trains he's been testing and told us all about his job...

Name: Ian Rawlings
Job title: Senior Testing and Commissioning Manager at Transport for London (TfL)
University degree: Brunel University: Bachelor of Engineering (BEng), the Special Engineering Programme
School subjects: maths, further maths, chemistry, physics and general studies

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What is London Underground?
London Underground is the owner and operator of the underground railway system in London. We run all the underground trains on the famous Tube map that you’ve probably seen. These include the Northern, Victoria, Piccadilly, Central, Hammersmith & City, District, Circle, Metropolitan, Jubilee and Bakerloo lines.

We’re in charge of railway operations including station staff, train drivers and signallers. We test and maintain everything we own including the tracks, trains, the signalling systems and stations on the underground and we build new projects.

What do you do?
I’m Senior Testing and Commissioning Manager for London’s “sub-surface upgrade programme”. We’re buying 200 new, replacement underground trains for the Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City, Circle and District tube lines - some of the current trains are 40 or 50 years old! We’re improving the train track to give a smoother, faster ride. We’re also upgrading the signalling system so we can operate more trains on the railway and reduce some of the crowding on London Underground.

I’m responsible for commissioning and testing all the new pieces of railway that we build and put into service for the travelling public on the tube lines mentioned above. This includes all the new trains, signalling systems, the station systems and anything you might find everyday on the railway.

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How does your work help Londoners?
London Underground transports about 4 million people each day so engineers are involved in every part of making the railway system work every day. As engineers we’re responsible for designing, maintaining and keeping the railway system safe in London. I have engineering colleagues responsible for designing and maintaining trains so they work reliably every day.

How do you work out how to run public transport and keep Londoners happy?
We have a team in TfL who look at the expected number of passengers over the next ten, twenty or thirty years and we use those predictions to work out what service we’ll need the railways to provide to passengers in future.

We work out how trains should be designed and what the train layout should be in the future. We will work out how frequently we need them to run, what speed they need to travel at and how to adapt the signalling systems. These control the trains and get as many trains through the station per hour as safely as possible.

We’re taking the requirements worked out from future predictions and turning them into the real railway that you see and use today.

Do you have a favourite part of your job?
We’re 150 years old next year. London had the first underground railway in the world and that presents a great challenge to us. We have to make improvements without closing the railway down or disrupting passenger service and there’s a great deal of reward in it.

Engineers working on public transport make a really massive difference to people’s lives. In London we allow huge numbers of people to get on with their daily lives. There’s a huge amount of satisfaction in that. I love seeing people using the new parts of the railway - keeping London moving.

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Could you describe an average day?
I get into the office about 7:30am. Two or three times per week we’ll run test trains on the train lines overnight so I review how these went and whether there were any problems and I publish the results to all the engineers in the test upgrade team.

I usually have meetings or I might be out at the train depot discussing any upcoming tests with my team or discussing how we’re progressing with LU management.

I analyse performance data for all the different areas of the railway that we test.  We might have to respond to a failure on the railway which would affect our testing or planning for that night so I need to be quite flexible.

What inspired you to become an engineer?
My grandfather was a big inspiration to me. He was in the RAF in the Second World War, looked after Spitfires and other aeroplanes and was always very good with his hands. I was always very keen on breaking and making things as a kid and when I was in the Sixth Form at school I realised that engineering was a way of turning this into something really helpful for the big wide world.

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When did you realise that trains were for you?
When I came to work for London Underground as a graduate trainee I still didn’t know what specific part of engineering I wanted to specialise in long-term. I spent six months working at one of the rolling stock (all the vehicles, not just trains, that move on the railway - Ed) depots and realised that trains were really interesting. There are lots of electrical, mechanical, electronic and control systems on the railway so you work with a mixture of different people and I could still keep my options open.

What kind of personal qualities do you need as an engineer?
You need to be keen on problem solving and be good at maths, because I use maths quite a lot. In a large organisation like LU there are so many different parts of the railway that you need to bring together in order for it all to work so you need to be able to work with others.

What did you study at school?
I studied five A-levels: maths, further maths, chemistry, physics and general studies.

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How were these subjects useful?
Science - particularly physics - was useful in understanding how structures work and how things move. Maths is also really important as when you’re designing a train you need to understand how many people you can get on it and how strong it needs to be. Science and maths are so important because they underpin engineering.

And at university?
I studied a Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) degree at Brunel University called the Special Engineering Programme, which covered both electrical and mechanical engineering and had some manufacturing, engineering design and management. It was a broad course, which was quite unusual but I liked it because it was varied and I wasn’t sure what area of engineering I wanted to focus on (for example mechanical engineering or electrical engineering – Ed). It was a “thin-sandwich” degree which means that you alternate three years of study with “Year in Industry” work placements where I could apply the engineering I learnt at university.

Do you have any advice for young people who might be interested in engineering?
Try exploring and finding out how things work. See if you can find things to take apart and put back together again – engineering is not all stuff you need to read out of a book!

What sort of things do you do in your spare time?
I have two daughters so they keep me quite busy. I also enjoy gardening, DIY and really enjoy cooking.

More links

Transport for London graduates
Engineering at Brunel University