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Rail North Bradford: the UK’s newest destination

31 min

It’s almost 2020 and Bradford remains the only major UK city still stuck on a branch line – but this is all about to change. On 29 October, Quadrant Transport travelled to the north’s youngest and most diverse city to find out how major regeneration and railway projects will put Bradford on the map, making it one of the top destinations of the future

No one could have predicted just how much of a struggle they would face when northerners first proposed, back in 1765, to build a canal between Leeds and Liverpool in order to facilitate the trade of vital commodities such as coal and wool.

If you think Crossrail is taking much too long to open, think again. Infamously known as the first trans-Pennine waterway to be started yet the last to be completed, plans for the canal faced a long and winding road until the infrastructure finally opened in 1816, a whopping 46 years after the passing of the Canal Act in 1770. What’s more, initial price estimates – of just under £260,000 – soared to around £1.2m, more than five times the original budget.

Proposals were repeatedly pushed back due to financial constraints, engineering mistakes and, above all, constant disagreement over the exact route that could satisfy the trading needs of all key towns in the region. What’s more, they proved siloed working isn’t exactly a modern phenomenon: the planning committee was initially made up of exclusively Yorkshiremen and, when it was agreed that they needed representation from Lancashire in order to progress work on the western end, an entirely separate committee was created. As one journalist from Canal Boat magazine put it: “It may have been optimistic to think the two would reach instant agreement, but no one expected a waterways re-run of the Wars of the Roses.”

Speaking at the Rail North: Bradford conference back in October, Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of Bradford Council and chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, described how local business leaders raised the money to support the canal’s construction, with the city’s wool merchant John Hunslet playing a key role in rallying support for an Act of Parliament. But they ended up running out of money and, all throughout, Yorkshire and Lancashire leaders struggled to see eye to eye.

Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe

For Susan, the complicated story of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal offers us two important history lessons: that Bradford must model itself on its forefathers, who despite all these hurdles managed to come up with an answer to their transport needs; and that cities across the north must learn to stand together.

“It’s that dogged determination in that canal story which inspires me to make sure that Bradford city centre is a stop on Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), and that the project is delivered,” she explained. “I feel that weight of history on me, to make sure I use the example of yesteryear to ensure that same determination delivers success for the people of Bradford and the north today.

“Today, we have a much more confident north. We work better together. We have Transport for the North (TfN), we have the combined authorities – and we all speak regularly. We’re making sure that we’re not traded off against one another, but instead stick together to get the investment we know we need.”

Susan’s fierce enthusiasm is not without reason. Born and bred in Bradford, the council leader recounts having had excellent advantages in early life that enabled her to attend a good university and move around the country as she pleased; now, her fight is to ensure every single Bradfordian has that same freedom and those same opportunities to excel.

“I don’t think other people have had them, and that’s a waste of potential,” she lamented during an interview with Quadrant Transport after the event, which took place on 29 October at the luxurious Midland Hotel – whose rich history dates back to the 1800s, when it used to be a showpiece for the Midland Railway Company’s northern operations. “Bradford is right at the heart of the north of England; we’re right in the middle. We should be really well-placed to get to Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – but because of the current connectivity constraints, we aren’t.”

I feel that weight of history on me, to make sure I use the example of yesteryear to ensure that same determination delivers success for the people of Bradford and the north today

Central to those constraints is a long history of underinvestment in Bradford’s railway infrastructure, dating back centuries rather than decades ago – so much so, actually, that it remains the only major UK city still stuck on a branch line.

“There’s probably a history to be written here about key decisions that were made at particular times by people of the city and those beyond the city,” said Kersten England, chief executive of Bradford Council, in an interview with Quadrant Transport. “There are previous local politicians and landowners in the city who resisted investment in infrastructure.”

Indeed, Bradfordians only welcomed trains into the city in 1846; before then, they had to face either a seven-mile walk or an hour’s journey by coach to get to the nearest station, in Brighouse. “Those are the kinds of things that make a difference – the willingness to have major infrastructure investment,” added Kersten. “I know, for example, that the difference between York and Lincoln were the forefathers of Lincoln, who effectively said they didn’t want rail infrastructure on their land [whereas York was on the East Coast Main Line]. You can see the difference that has made in the centrality of those two cities, which at one time wouldn’t have been too dissimilar in significance in the country.”

Add to that the fact that Bradford struggled to diversify its economic base as regions scrambled to deal with the industrial decline, and you have a recipe for disaster: what was once the wool capital of the world became, in the 20th century, a city blighted by declining exports, poor connectivity, socioeconomic deprivation, and neighbouring competition.

Much has changed since then: the city has emphasised the importance of establishing itself as a strong tourist destination by showing the world the incredible potential of its young population. It became the world’s first-ever UNESCO City of Film and one of its districts, the Victorian model village of Saltaire, was named a World Heritage Site; if you’re big on literary classics, you’ll know it’s one of the locations in the Brontë Country; and it is home to the largest collection of works by the influential and Bradford-born pop artist David Hockney.

City Park

Over the past decade, businesses and local authority leaders have also worked together to breathe new life into key economic hotspots in the city, with special focus on business, education, housing, and transport as part of a city centre plan from 2015. Some of the standout accomplishments include the redevelopment of the retail offering through the creation of The Broadway shopping and leisure complex; a state-of-the-art learning facility, New Bradford College, which opened in September this year; and the glorious transformation of City Park, now a multi-award-winning public space whose mirror pool boasts the record of being the largest urban water feature in the UK.

City Park was a £24m public sector investment, an absolute leap of faith by the local authority and other public funders to really set a benchmark for quality of the public realm

“City Park was a £24m public sector investment, an absolute leap of faith by the local authority and other public funders to really set a benchmark for quality of the public realm,” said Steve Hartley, strategic director for place at Bradford Council, during his keynote at the conference. “And it’s done that in spades. It has absolutely nailed it: it’s won countless awards, and it provides the fulcrum around which many things are happening in Bradford at the moment. In summer, it’s absolutely humming in terms of social cohesion – you’ll see the whole of Bradford down there.”

City Park

Speaking to Quadrant Transport after the event, during which he had discussed the impressive investments in Bradford’s built environment over the past decade, Steve revealed City Park was his personal favourite. “The original space had a road through it; it was a bit of a hotchpotch of different spaces, a lot of bus stops, and just a bit of a mess,” he explained.

The original solution, designed by architect Will Alsop – the “maverick” creative force behind the city’s entire masterplan – proposed a lake around the Grade I listed City Hall rather than a water feature, but the plan slowly evolved throughout the years. “In terms of where the inspiration came from, the team that put it together looked at a number of other major cities and how they used water in the city centre while still having a flexible, useable space,” said Steve. “I don’t think there was one particular city, say, Paris or Chicago, that stood out; they had a look at various places and started to develop the idea from the original Alsop masterplan.

“The beauty of it is that it’s a very flexible space; we can use it in different ways. Last weekend, for example, we drained it down and had a whole lot of stores around. We used it as the base for our Bradford City Runs [on 3 November], which are 5k, 10k, and half marathon runs around the district; we had the start and finish of major international bike races from there. It’s fantastically flexible, and it really sets off City Hall and the surrounding area, giving Bradford a focus at its heart.”

Looking forward, the council has developed extensive plans for widespread regeneration, with a city centre action plan targeting all corners of the district, from Forster Square and Cathedral Quarter at the top of the town right down to the Southern Gateway area. At the very heart of plans is a hellbent desire to retain the charm of Bradford’s remarkable collection of listed architecture while still bringing the city steadfastly into the modern demands of the 21st century.

The plan of action to make this vision come to life is multifaceted, but absolutely crucial to its success will be widespread investment in rail. In fact, plans for the regeneration of the Southern Gateway area, which spans more than 100 hectares of currently underutilised land, partially hinge on the development of a proposed city centre NPR station, which would connect the city to the wider national network and help add a huge £15bn to the north’s GVA by 2060, according to analysis by Genecon consultants.

All in all, the message of the day was clear: invest in transforming historically overlooked cities into modern hubs of activity, and these cities will shape themselves into compelling places in which to live and work – all for the greater good of the entire country.

Northern Powerhouse Rail

Unsurprisingly, the need to build a city-centre NPR station at the heart of Bradford was the highlight topic of discussion at the October conference, perfectly encapsulating the city’s ardent impetus to make it happen even in the politically turbulent and uncertain times we are living in.

“What we’ve seen in the last year or two is a greater focus on the north of England because of the Brexit vote,” Susan Hinchcliffe posited. “I think the south of England and Westminster have all started to look north with a collective gaze; they’re having to take a long, hard look at their decision-making over the last few years and say, ‘Perhaps we should review that.’ Because really, if you want to run a successful nation – and we’re only a small nation, at the end of the day – you need to make sure all parts of it are firing from all cylinders. That means the north needs to be regenerated – and if we’re not, we’re going to bump into further problems down the road. I’m hoping that our moment has come.”

During the conference’s first panel debate, which focused specifically on the east-west NPR line, the project’s director at TfN, Tim Wood, argued that the north is starting to hit government “right between the eyes” rather than shy away from asking for what it needs. “We’ve had enough here in the north after decades of underinvestment. The GVA of what London and the southeast produce is more than double what the north does, but we’re double the population of the southeast – so how can that be right?” he questioned. “It’s like the analogy of the plane flying with a single engine – the southeast engine. Putting that northern engine on there will turbocharge the economy.”

Bradford Northern Powerhouse Rail Interchange

For the panel debate, Tim was joined by four other industry leaders representing different facets of Bradford’s investment portfolio: Andy Davidson, head of customer banking for Yorkshire Bank; Andrew McPhillips, chief economist at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership; Clement Walsh, director at PwC UK; and Kersten England, who alongside her role at the council is also lead CEO for business growth and innovation in the Leeds City Region.

Agreeing with Tim that investment in the high-speed line between Manchester and Leeds is pivotal, Kersten said: “I tend to take the view that you should do everything you can within your sphere of direct influence, and that, for me, is building a very strong case here and across the north.”

Andrew agreed, noting that unlike HS2, NPR currently enjoys cross-party support and has the public on its side, too. “It’s widely accepted that NPR is essential, and I would almost say it’s nailed down that it’s going to happen in some way, shape, or form,” he claimed. “Clearly, we have lots of work to go through, including the final details of the route – but in terms of the government’s priority and the messages that we get from them, it’s very much near the top of their agenda and ahead of projects such as Crossrail 2.”

Political uncertainty, however, is still a sticking point, especially considering railway policy is directly linked to the manifestos of each party. At the time of the Bradford conference, a concrete date hadn’t yet been announced for a general election, and most local political leaders in the room were anxiously awaiting some greater clarity from the towers of Westminster.

“That lack of certainty undermines investment confidence, and that is impacting our economy, and therefore the yield to the Treasury and tax receipts,” said Kersten. “The sooner we get clarity over that, the better. But here, locally, we will continue to build momentum and take inspiration from places like Birmingham and Leeds, who got on and built compelling visions for the regeneration of their places.”

There’s so much work that needs to go in to be able to build what I’ve realised is probably the most complex rail job in the country

From a private sector perspective, both Clement and Andy agreed that greater confidence over the future pipeline is imperative to their ability to invest both in new infrastructure and in more people. “It’s very important for us to be able to recruit people with access to jobs, and people who have jobs need places to live,” said Clement. “We also find that fewer of our young recruits are actually wanting to drive to work; they want to live somewhere where they can access work by rail.” That’s one of the reasons why PwC opened a new Bradford office earlier this year, but of course, people should be able to live in a city and easily work in another – especially in West Yorkshire, where Bradford and Leeds currently share greater daily commuter flows between two cities than anywhere else in the UK.

Andy agreed, pointing out that every other business he speaks to says that one of the most common challenges they face is accessing skills and finding the right people to take their work forward. “My understanding is that NPR will quadruple the skills base that the business will be able to draw on. Businesses need certainty in terms of making investment decisions, so I think getting clarity around NPR is absolutely critical,” the Yorkshire Bank official added.

So, what are the current expectations surrounding NPR? Initial strategic business cases have demonstrated that the new line will slash journey times between Bradford and other key cities by a significant amount: what is currently a 24-minute journey to Leeds will decrease to just seven minutes; the usual hour-long trip to Manchester will be a quick 22-minute ride; and if HS2 is built, journey times from Bradford to London and Birmingham will drop by more than half. Even further, a new NPR station – if placed in the city centre rather than as a southern parkway – would create almost 15,000 new jobs by 2060 and bring millions more people within reach of the city’s economic centre.

But none of that will come easy.

“There’s so much work that needs to go in to be able to build what I’ve realised is probably the most complex rail job in the country,” Tim Wood admitted. “It’s more complex than HS2, there’s no doubt about it in my mind. New lines, existing lines, major junction interventions, and also tying in with Network Rail completing some of its works, such as TransPennine Upgrade… It’s a highly complex programme, and in railway terms, a spade in the ground by 2024 is effectively tomorrow. Finishing the job in 2040 is about a week away. That’s why we consistently call for the A-team to be able to deliver it – wherever they are in the country.”

Northern Powerhouse Rail Director Tim Wood

Some of this talent will hail from elsewhere, but much of it will undoubtedly be found in Bradford. With its reputation of being the youngest city in the UK – 25% of its population is under the age of 16 – as well as having one of the highest rates of immigration in the country, Bradford can offer a diverse, multicultural, and multitalented workforce that is champing at the bit to leave a positive legacy behind them.

“I know Channel 4 wouldn’t have come to the Leeds City Region without Bradford in the mix,” argued Kersten. “The NEC wouldn’t be interested in Bradford unless they thought that it had potential. And the PwC have remodelled their business and have come looking for that young, entrepreneurial, digital native demographic – and they’ve found it here. They haven’t struggled to recruit really good people. They’re people with huge amounts of potential that are flourishing in the business; a lot of them have grown up in entrepreneurial families, because that’s part of the DNA of this place. They understand the world of business. As you can tell, I’m an optimist and an enthusiast – I love this place.”

Julian Jackson, director of planning, transportation and highways at Bradford Council, echoed Kersten’s views on the population offering. “We’re the workforce of the future for cities such as Leeds and Manchester, and even further afield – and getting that connectivity is really important to fulfilling these ambitions,” he said of NPR. “It’s not just about the city centre, but the areas in the wider district, too. You have lots of digital industries there; they’re quite innovative. It’s about bringing those sorts of businesses and people to the fore and seeing how they can help our younger population grow in the future. Our plan has to be inclusive, making sure that any transport interventions and improvements to the system also benefit the wider district. For example, Forster Square station will be undergoing redevelopment soon; that’s the line up to the Airedale and Wharfedale lines, connecting places like Keighley and Ilkley. There’s quite a lot going on other than just big projects such as NPR. We’re making sure that we’re putting investment into our stations to make them more into gateways, which can contribute to regeneration already.”

Susan Hinchcliffe was similarly positive, confident that the city could move past some of the preconceptions possibly established during the 20th century in order to show the rest of the world what they’re made of. “People haven’t realised that we’re a city that is bigger than Liverpool, Newcastle, and Bristol, for example,” the council leader noted. “They haven’t realised that we’re the youngest city. We’re starting to articulate our value more than we’ve ever done before.”

We’re making sure that we’re putting investment into our stations to make them more into gateways, which can contribute to regeneration already

As well as involvement in building the high-speed line and its stations, Tim Wood advised that businesses can take advantage of the opportunity by leveraging the soon-to-be thriving economic areas along the route’s stops. “Part of the investment on the NPR network is around the stations, because there’s a payback there: retail. The stations are invariably the central hubs around the towns and cities. Here in Bradford, the four-platform station could even be third-party funded – I’d be happy to look at supporting that, as well as a number of the other new stations we’re looking at, such as Manchester Airport. That’s where the mass of people will come through every day, so it’s really going to be a massive hub of activity.”

While we wait on further confirmation from central government, businesses who twiddle their thumbs will do so at their own peril: there is plenty of preliminary work to get involved in.

Southern Gateway

The second panel debate of Rail North: Bradford centred around the Southern Gateway vision: an ambitious spatial masterplan focused on transforming the largely industrial, underutilised area into a thriving urban neighbourhood with new residential and business developments. The council hopes that the revitalised area will allow Bradford to rethink where its city centre is going to be in the future, “being cognisant of how cities will function in 15-20 years’ time and the services and assets that will need to be provided,” according to the NPR Bradford Growth Strategy.

“Within the Southern Gateway area there are clear opportunities to redevelop large and underutilised buildings, transfer major medical and educational assets to a better-connected location, and provide mixed-use developments that cater for the needs of a young, expanding and mobile Bradford economy,” explained the strategy. “A main part of the rationale for focusing on the Southern Gateway area is the future location of an NPR station. All of the options being considered for the station location, both within and on the edge of the City Centre, clearly fall within the scope of influence for the Southern Gateway area.”

Tom Bridges, Leeds office leader and director of cities advisory at Arup, argued the development of a masterplan falls in line with historical precedence: “All the history and case studies of high-speed rail show that to maximise the benefits in terms of development, regeneration, new jobs and new homes, there needs to be an integrated approach to land use planning around major infrastructure,” he noted. “That’s certainly what is happening at Crewe, and it’s certainly what others are seeking to do too. Places need to identify – as Bradford is doing – what else needs to happen to maximise the benefits of what I believe will be a transformational piece of infrastructure.”

That is also in line with what is taking place in Cheshire, with Hayley Kirkham, HS2 growth lead at Cheshire East Council, claiming that programmes such as NPR and HS2 would fail to deliver without this coordinated approach. “Through the growth strategy, you can bring together all of the different partners and start giving confidence to the market. It’s about getting that ball rolling well in advance of the trains arriving – that’s the important thing to start to attract new investment,” she said. “We are also developing an area action plan to make sure that what comes forward supports the overall strategic vision, and we’re actively working with partners of existing public sector land that we have in the area.”

Andy Sellars, divisional director at Jacobs, shared Hayley’s view, pointing out that companies in Cheshire have been looking at the infrastructure upgrades that need to happen now in order to cater for HS2’s demands in 15 or 20 years’ time. “A funding strategy looking at existing government funding, existing development, and local plans all feed into that long-term vision,” said Andy.

For Julian Jackson, the existing NPR growth strategy for Bradford is just a starting point. Over the next few months, he explained, it will be fleshed out in “a lot more detail” as city-centre plans progress and evolve. “A number of sectors in this room will be interested in the opportunities that come about,” the council official revealed. “It’s about making sure that people stay involved, come to these events, and talk to us over the next few months.”

Speaking to Quadrant Transport after the event, Julian noted that in his view, the Southern Gateway is where the real opportunity for economic transformation is by marrying significant transport interventions with a chance to focus on widespread regeneration. “There’s a real opportunity for potential private sector investment in the future, which could be really transformational for Bradford,” he added.

When it comes to the impact that spatial regeneration can have on the success of a city, Julian speaks from experience. Back in the early 2000s, he was involved in the early planning stages of the London Olympics, where he was one of the people responsible for coordinating resources between the three local authorities hosting the global sporting event to ensure growth plans were aligned to the demands of the Games. “What was really important was inputting into the masterplan exercise for the whole area to make sure that what was being planned met the local needs of people in that area – whether it was around infrastructure or social housing, that kind of things,” he explained. “We were thinking not just about the plans for the Olympics itself, but also about the legacy: what would those facilities be used for after the Games?”

The parallels between the redevelopment of places such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets and the proposals for Bradford write themselves. “If you go back 10 years and compare the London boroughs to what they are like now, it’s unrecognisable. And that was a combination of not just public sector investment, but as a catalyst for private sector investment too. There’s a strong parallel as to what we need to be doing now in terms of station and infrastructure development in Bradford, making sure we’re maximising the potential regeneration opportunities in those area and making sure that we’re meeting the needs of local communities. It’s not just about a big and shiny project; it’s about making sure that it is integrated with what people need and with the wider community.”

According to Tim Wood, the private sector could be involved sooner rather than later. If it were up to him, the NPR station could be built before the high-speed line even appears, providing a jumping-off point from which companies can begin to invest in retail opportunities and in the surrounding areas. “That is exactly the same as what happened at Canary Wharf down in London,” he noted. “And here, with the land bank that is available, that can move a lot quicker. It clearly sends a message down to Whitehall that we are absolutely punching hard here to make sure that we can get as much in, as early we possibly can, in terms of the overall programme. We’ve been out on a number of tenders and I’m sure that this one will be coming up in a little while, in terms of looking for someone to start to articulate what the new station could look like.”

A key part of plans to regenerate the Southern Gateway area also ties into Bradford’s desire to create its own unique brand in the hopes of attracting greater volumes of tourists and transforming the city into a destination in itself. To make that happen, the council is developing a ‘destination plan’ that will be fed into its bid – officially launched in September this year – to become the City of Culture in 2025. So far, the city council has pledged a major £400,000 towards the bid as part of an overall £1.4m culture investment package that seeks to build on and promote Bradford’s well-established clusters of creativity, innovation, and resilience.

Investing in Skills

Of course, none of these plans – for NPR, for Southern Gateway, for cultural transformation – will be possible without a concerted effort into expanding Bradford’s skills base, which, unlike the rest of the country, is vibrating with kinetic energy. But while the city’s young profile and high rates of immigration may mean it already boasts a strengthened workforce ready to get to work, the national skills shortage in the rail industry still poses a threat to Bradford’s future prosperity – especially when so much of current plans hinge on NPR.

“The Treasury made it very clear: no skills, no money,” said Tim Wood during the third and final panel debate of the day. “The economic benefits of NPR are part of it, but not if we don’t have the people to build it. Once we cut out that boom and bust nonsense and have a steady work bank, businesses will be able to look internally to see what they want to do, how they will achieve it, and make sure they have the skillsets available for that. For me, the National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure [previously known as the National College for High Speed Rail] has really struggled because companies won’t put their staff through training if they don’t know what work they will be doing or what the pipeline is.”

Bradford NPR

Tom Bridges agreed, claiming that the unwillingness of the industry to step up and help attract students into the national college “probably comes down to signals from government around committing to some of the spend.” “We need commitment on programmes – all our businesses need to invest in people and skills over a long period of time,” he said. “Tim’s doing a fantastic job of trying to demonstrate that commitment, but we need the government to actually give him that certainty to allow the industry to then invest in skills going forward. Having confidence that you can put people to work and give them careers is really important; the last thing you want to do with a new person coming into the organisation is bring them in, get them to work for six months, and then have no work for them. Confidence in the pipeline is absolutely critical.”

The private sector also has a part to play in this, especially when it comes to procurement. One of the barriers Tom has observed is a customary tender requirement to bring in people who have experienced CVs, which then makes it difficult to attract new starters or those from different industries. “The client may want that person, but procurement stands in the way. That needs to change to make it work,” he stated. “That’s not just a Network Rail thing; it’s across the industry.”

Graham Botham, strategy and planning director at Network Rail, pointed out that a lot of work is currently taking place to remove barriers not only to new people, but to SMEs who wish to do business with the infrastructure owner. He accepted that many organisations currently find Network Rail “quite inflexible” to work with. “For example, it takes a long time to go through our procurement questions just to get in,” he admitted. “In low-risk and low-value contracts, we’ve taken out 80% of the questions that we would normally ask in the procurement process, just to try and make it easier for a range of SMEs to do business with us. At the moment, we probably don’t find a way to get into the market as much as we should; that’s what we’ve done to open up the market to more people who we can do business with.”

While procurement might be a beast in itself, a considerable chunk of this effort to clarify the future pipeline and provide suppliers with greater visibility boils down to the structural changes that are being envisaged by the Williams Rail Review. High hopes rest on Keith Williams making ambitious recommendations to government about how the industry should operate in the future.

The client may want that person, but procurement stands in the way. That needs to change to make it work

But according to Tim and Graham, while the review will play a part in this, suppliers shouldn’t wait around for its conclusions. “We ought to be getting on with stuff now to make it better for passengers in the north,” Tim said. “We need to be getting on with the NPR programme. We need to be mindful of these reviews, but at the same time, we need to come together and just carry on.”

Graham agreed: “There is a burning need to get on with making the railway better for the passenger of the future. We can’t wait around for structural change, and structural change won’t be the only thing that does it. It will be the way we behave, the way we do things differently, and the way we look at things in a different way. Certainly, a very clear message that I get from our CEO [Andrew Haines] is: ‘Don’t wait around for the Williams Review, get on with doing the right thing now.’ If it’s the right thing now, it will be the right thing in the future – it might just be a different structure wrapped around it.”

Skills-wise, Graham says Network Rail is injecting sizeable investment into attracting people into the industry via its apprenticeship and graduate programmes. The infrastructure manager currently employs almost 1,000 apprentices nationally, with around 30 of them in the Yorkshire area, while its graduate programme is consistently oversubscribed – not just for engineering, but across other areas of expertise such as operations and business management.

If you have children, you’ll know about how much they can build in games like Minecraft – they’re a lot faster than the rest of us. They live in a virtual world already

The private sector is also playing its part. Tom Meacock, client director for strategic rail at Atkins, praised his company’s participation in the 5% Club – an employer-led national movement which, as the name suggests, seeks to ensure at least 5% of each company’s workforce is in ‘earn and learn’ positions such as apprenticeships and graduate schemes. “We have a STEM ambassador programme; we have over 500 people going into schools around the country to raise awareness of this. Key for me is primary schools: going in very early and making sure they’re excited about the industry and its opportunities,” said Tom. “If you have children, you’ll know about how much they can build in games like Minecraft – they’re a lot faster than the rest of us. They live in a virtual world already. My son is 13 and is already talking about building his first computer with virtual reality goggles. That’s how we need to encourage those types of people into rail.

“Going forward, it won’t just be about civil and electrical engineering. They will still be core skills, of course, but we need more data analytics people, people with high emotional intelligence… There are some new skills emerging in the workforce, and that will be a real challenge.”

Surprisingly, the offices themselves are also starting to make a difference in terms of attracting and satisfying the needs of millennials and Generation Z professionals, who are increasingly looking to work in more informal, relaxed environments that can stimulate creativity and inspire new ideas. “WeWork has been in the press for various different reasons recently, but people do like working in these types of offices,” said Tom. Time to splash paint on your white walls and get some cactus plants hanging from the ceilings.