A rail academy could be set up in the North-East to nurture engineering talent and cure a chronic skills shortage in the industry.

The academy, which is being backed by One NorthEast, is the idea of Newcastle based engineering consultants Railway Performance. Railway Performance, which specialises in providing railway infrastructure expertise to the likes of Amec and Balfour Beatty, has been awarded a contract by the Learning and Skills Council Tyne and Wear to conduct a feasibility study into the plan. It hopes to win European grants to finance the academy which would comprise a training centre and sections of working track. Apprentices would receive hands-on experience and be able to train for relevant industry qualifications. There have been growing fears that a shortage of experienced engineering staff on Britain's railways is leading to crucial gaps in safety. The Northern Echo reported last month how the rail division of North-East based Amec had launched a worldwide recruitment campaign and was hoping to attract experienced skilled staff from as far away as New Zealand. The academy would be the first of its kind in the North-East - currently trainee engineers have to travel to the Midlands for the nearest railway training facilities. Seth Beckreck, managing director of Railway Performance, said: "Historically the North-East has made a strategic contribution to rail engineering and we need to build on this expertise to pass and skills and training to the next generation. "There is a massive skills shortage and people are being brought in from overseas but that is not enough to deliver the rail infrastructure Britain needs." Chris Roberts, executive director of the Learning and Skills Council Tyne and Wear, said: "The possible establishment of a rail academy will allow local people to achieve the skills needed by the industry and secure employment in the area." Critics say many skilled staff such as track supervisors and signal engineers were offered early retirement or allowed to drift into other industries when the railways were privatised in a bid to cut costs. Peter Rayner, a former British Rail manager, who now writes on rail safety issues, said: "I welcome this idea of a rail academy, but it is a great shame that is needed in the first place. "Railtrack milked the system and replaced skilled people with casual labour. "Now we are having to build a bank of experience up again rather than allow people to receive on the job training from people who have been in the industry for many years." A spokesman for One NorthEast said: "A rail academy to train local people and give them the skills necessary to work in the industry would be a very positive move and has to be applauded."