Options to get you moving

If London wants a new bus fleet, that’s one thing, but if Las Vegas wants one, then you can bet your bottom dollar that the challenge will be more extreme.

“Whenever Vegas goes out to tender it always wants high performance,” says David Barnett, a mechanical engineer at Wrightbus and project manager for the Street-Car – a high-spec cross between a conventional bendybus and a tram.

One of the requirements is that the vehicle must be able to accelerate to 30mph in just ten seconds. “That’s not easy when you’re talking about a 30-tonne vehicle,” he says. “It’s heavy because of the weight of the diesel/electric hybrid drive. We had to develop a special chassis strong enough to take it.”

A less glamorous but equally important challenge has been understanding a totally new set of regulations. “They’re not any more difficult,” Barnett says. “Just frustratingly different. The team’s default setting is EU regulations, so we have to be very careful.”

That’s the downside. The upside is the glamour of producing a product for a location as over the top as Vegas. StreetCars will have passenger “infotainment” screens, displays showing where they are on the route and wireless hotspots. The colour scheme is top secret.

“We’ve set out to challenge preconceptions about public transport,” Barnett says. “We want to make people walk past their cars and use this instead. Every time we take one out on a test drive, people just stop and gawp at it. We’re confident that it will turn heads in Las Vegas too.”

Another engineer who’s had a taste of glamour recently is Stephen Turley, who works for Tube Lines, the infrastructure company responsible for upgrading the Piccadilly, Jubilee and Northern lines. He left school at 16 to take up an apprenticeship with a local Ford car dealer, but since then, via a Whitworth Scholarship through IMechE, has gained a bachelor’s and a master’s degreeb in mechanical engineering. Turley’s main job is station modernisation, but he has also been given the chance to carry out what he describes as a “pimp my ride” on an old Tube train.

“The train had been sitting, unused, in a field for ten years. We cut it into four carriages, refurbished it, put in a kitchen and toilets and designed laser and infra-red equipment for the front to read the condition of the track.” The equipment is able to highlight any areas that are likely to fail. “It’s preventative maintenance,” he says. “It’s incredible to think that I could end up doing something like that after leaving school with just maths and science GCSEs.”

Another former apprentice with a highflying job is Michael Bennett. He works for British Aerospace on the F35 strike fighter being built in conjunction with the US. “The department I’m in looks after the testing of the vertical and horizontal tails and the aft fuselage. We do ground testing – putting hydraulic jacks all over it, to push and pull the aircraft to simulate the flight loads. Then it’s shipped to the US where it’s all bolted together,” he says.

Also in aeronautics is Corinne Quail, a project engineer in the out-source maintenance department at Virgin. She has loved problem-solving since her schooldays. “I think it’s a characteristic of a lot of engineers,” she says. Her problems now are more related to improving systems and processes because her department looks after the maintenance of the 747 fleet, which is done in Amsterdam by KLM, and the A340s, which go to the Philippines with Lufthansa Technic.

“We don’t have sufficient hangar space in the UK, so every two years we put the aircraft on the ground for a week. Then every eight years we do a much more involved check.”

Quail, who is also heavily involved in promoting engineering to children through a charitable organisation called the Industrial Trust, says that she wants to change the image of engineering. “I’m more interested in the business side now – my area is more contract negotiations and improving processes. But you need the fundamental understanding of the engineering to ensure that quality is maintained. Being an engineer doesn’t have to mean sitting all day with a spanner in your hand.”