Why on earth would anyone use 2 weeks of annual leave to build a model railway? As STEM Ambassadors, we often joke that championing Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths is a full-time job. Problem is, we already have day jobs, as engineers. That’s why we spent our summer holiday being filmed by Love Productions for a Channel 4 show, surviving clouds of midges and rain.
You are probably questioning our sanity now, but when you’re as acutely aware of the need for more engineers in your industry then it’s hard not to seize every opportunity to promote the industry in a more positive light. Oh, and it sounded like a great challenge to take on an engineering project of such a grand scale, in a really tight time limit. Still not convinced you that it was a good idea? Well, we’ve interviewed each other to see if we can explain a bit more behind our reasons.
Aimi: What did you first think when you heard about the task we had to do?
Pip: Well it sounded a truly ridiculous idea, to build over 70 miles of miniature railway track from Fort William to Inverness. Sure, the track we were laying was on the small scale but the overall project was a major construction project, and to be done in only 2 weeks with 56 volunteers! I just had to be a part of this, and give it our best effort. Also considering I have been very public about my love of trains, this sounded like exactly like my cup of tea so what better way to spend a holiday? I was also really enthused when talking to the production company about how much they wanted to promote engineering to a wider audience, and was very keen to support them in their goal.
Pip: Why did you get involved?
Aimi: One of the best things about getting involved in a project like this is that you get to meet some really passionate people. You’d probably have to be half mad to take on a challenge like this in the first place – we may have gone slightly bonkers by the end! But we all wanted to see this magnificent endeavour to succeed and we all believed in showing the locals and the viewers at home how exciting it is to build something you can collectively call your own.
Aimi: If this was an engineering project at work, would you have done things differently?
Pip: Often people complain about how long engineering projects take in the UK. A lot of planning and design goes in to construction, way before you see anything happen on the ground. Obviously, this doesn’t really make for good television – I certainly wouldn’t be interested in spending my evenings watching some of the meetings I attend! It was quite a pleasant change to just fully get stuck into a project, when my normal job is primarily office based developing designs for construction. Sure, some prior planning could have eased some of the teething issues, but then there’s also something really satisfying about having to think on your feet and solve an issue then and there, rather than the usual weeks of design I’m used to carrying out. For the engineers who work on site, they are perhaps more familiar with the need to suddenly adapt to a problem, and so I hope the viewers can get a sense of that excitement and the challenges faced when tackling big engineering infrastructure projects.
Pip: What was the best thing about this project?
Aimi: It was the same sense of collective pride that you get working on a construction project. It has its highs and frustrations but ultimately you go through a journey together to build something useful and that captures people’s imagination.
You get the same feeling when working on the railway. On railway projects, there is always the consideration of how passengers are going to use and interact with the service, how to ensure their safety and how to get them to their destination on time – despite popular belief! Ultimately railways benefit a vast amount of people and they seep into our collective culture as it’s part of our everyday experience. It’s great to be part of that.
Aimi: What was it like working alongside a group of people you’d never met before?
Pip: It was an intense time, and getting home afterwards I felt somewhat dazed. It’s impossible for anyone who wasn’t part of it to truly understand the bubble we were all in. Yet that was also the highlight for me, meeting the people whose passion came from the model railway side – the same passion I feel as a STEM ambassador wanting to promote my industry. We all shared in the same desire to give a positive message – and so were truly united, as one enormous team, all with one goal in mind. I also learnt a lot about model railways, and have seen some absolutely beautiful creations, and works of art.
However, I could have done without the camping element…and listening to the chorus of snoring!
Pip: Would you do it again?
Aimi: Absolutely. I wouldn’t have thought to visit such a beautiful part of Scotland if it wasn’t for the show. We had some spectacular backdrops to work against, we got to know the Great Glen Way very well, many times over! If there were another series I would prefer somewhere warmer, without midges attacking us all day.
Just seeing the excitement of local children and their parents as we passed through was enough to make it worthwhile. There is something about model railways which brings out a child in everyone, which I’m sure you’ll get to see.
Did we actually achieve it? Well you’ll just have to tune in to find out. You can watch Aimi and Pip’s efforts on Channel 4’s The Biggest Little Railway In The World, on Sundays at 8pm. Click here to catch up with the series so far!