Civic Infrastructure plays a critical role in the lives of millions of citizens by providing a safe, reliable and efficient means of transportation on a daily basis.

Nikhil Pillai, our next pathbreaker, PhD Researcher at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), models interactions between trains and railway tracks, which essentially functions as a digital twin of the infrastructure asset, and informs infrastructure managers about potential damage to the asset so they can carry out predictive maintenance. 

Nikhil talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his experiences during his formative years that shaped his lifelong fascination for machines, which would later translate to a career in applied research.

For students, stay hungry and inquisitive. Use your curiosity as a weapon to acquire knowledge through work experience and capitalize on it when the time arrives!

Nikhil, what can you tell us about yourself?

I was born and raised in a South Indian family in a multicultural neighbourhood in Mumbai, India. Both my maternal and paternal relatives had moved to the city of dreams three generations before mine. Growing up, I went to a local English Medium school where I grew up with kids from various family backgrounds, coming from all walks of life. I was very lucky to have supportive parents who took an interest in my academic development and upbringing. Though they were never forceful of me achieving set grades in school, they always emphasised the importance of being consistent, proactive and giving everything a go. At school, I was interested not just in maths and sciences but in all subjects including languages and social sciences. In terms of extra-curricular activities, I did fairly well in public speaking/elocution and was appointed a prefect in secondary school.

I enjoyed taking things apart as a kid, such as my toy trains and buses just to have a look at how the mechanisms inside worked. Growing up, I was enthusiastic about all machines that could carry you and move, including trains, cars and aeroplanes. My grandfather was a technical inspector for the Indian Railways at what was then the Bombay Central division. I spent a vast number of my weekends with my grandparents. During my primary school days, I remember being routinely taken over to a foot-over bridge at a train station near their house to look at trains. Believe it or not, I used to be able to tell trains apart without looking at them, just by hearing the sound of the horn and the crescendo of the engine note just as trains left the station.  

Our family spent most of Diwalis at our holiday home in Pune, which was near the air-force station. Every morning at 8 am, the local IAF squadron used to take their fighter jets up for a spin. I used to religiously wake up 5 minutes before the show began and rush to the terrace to take it all in! I fondly remember marvelling at those magnificent fighter jets as a kid, and always wondered how they got going and helped us, humans, without wings, to fly. These experiences during my formative years shaped my initial fascination with machines, which would later translate to Engineering. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

The first-ever Indian Grand Prix took place during my years at secondary school and I became obsessed with the pinnacle of motorsport. I particularly admired the state of the art technology developed through the sport, especially the energy recovery systems, which were novel at the time and the way they influenced the wider engineering and vehicle technology industry. 

As time passed, my fascination for machines translated into considering Engineering as a career. And so my formal engineering education began, not because of parental pressure but because I was fascinated with the topic. After my secondary school (10th), I went on to do a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering in India. This was followed by lateral entry to study for a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cardiff University, UK which was partly funded by the Pro-Vice Chancellor’s excellence scholarship. Subsequently, I gained relevant work experience in the field of railway engineering in the UK and was accepted to do a fully funded, railways-focused PhD in Engineering at the University of Birmingham. 

I chose to do a Diploma as I was aware that I wanted to study Engineering and I knew someone in our neighborhood who had chosen that route and did well in their degree because of the strong foundation provided by the diploma. In addition, choosing a Diploma Mechanical Engineering ensured that I would be able to evaluate different career opportunities within the subject and specialize in a sub-field later. 

Another aspect that I had considered before choosing a diploma was the ability to get lateral entry later and save a year of tuition fees and living expenses if I were to get an opportunity to study abroad.

It was my dream to study in the UK since it was the birthplace of the industrial revolution and because of the impact Formula 1 had on my career choice. In fact, there were a couple of motorsport courses delivered in collaboration between Indian and British universities where you could study in India where you could top up your degree at a British university by studying for the final year in Britain. 

Unfortunately, those courses did not do too well and I realized that doing a degree from a well-reputed Russell group university in the UK would suit my academic credentials better.

I was also lucky to be a recipient of the Pro-Vice Chancellor’s excellence scholarship at Cardiff University, which despite being a partial scholarship, helped me a long way with the finances. For the scholarship, I had to prove my commitment to innovation, entrepreneurship and community engagement, which I proved through involvement in various activities during my diploma. A strong recommendation letter from the principal of our college, Mr. Daniel Jacob, also contributed to validating those achievements. I also had a meeting with the Head of international recruitment for the engineering school at Cardiff University, in Mumbai, which definitely helped with obtaining an offer to study and the scholarship. 

What were some of the key influencing factors that led you to this career?

In my case, there were tiny bits that added up, my family background, an interest in machines, railways, aviation and motorsport! I also read non-technical books on careers surrounding engineering, especially around personalities in F1, Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey being my favourites. I was fascinated by Ross because of his combined technical and managerial ability and Adrian Newey for his engineering brilliance and contribution to F1 aerodynamics and vehicle design. These impressionable moments contributed to my choice of engineering.

Whilst studying for a degree at Cardiff, I was interviewed and accepted onto a couple of year-long work placement roles, out of which I chose to work with a well-known organisation in the rail industry, Knorr-Bremse.

Knorr-Bremse Rail Systems are a major supplier of railway systems for train manufacturers and rail infrastructure projects. During my time there, the company was involved in new product introduction projects related to brake control as well as supplying Platform Screen Door systems for the Cross Rail project in London, which is one of the biggest ongoing infrastructure projects in the UK. 

I was a part of the product development team, where I researched various standards for the development of mechatronic products, devised test plans and specifications for fulfilling operational requirements and participated in development testing myself or through engagement with the company’s sub-suppliers whilst being mentored by experienced staff on technical as well as project management aspects of the business. These experiences triggered my interest in new product introduction and innovation. 

I also expressed my interest in getting involved in a wide range of diverse projects, which were being carried out in the R&D department of the company. One such project which was being carried out in collaboration with the UK Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), Knorr-Bremse Austria and Knorr-Bremse UK, was on the introduction of Magnetic Track Brakes to the UK market. The project involved studying about Magnetic Track brakes, which unlike wheel brakes apply the braking force directly onto the tracks. 

Two innovative concepts for track brakes were explored, one where there would be physical contact between the track and multiple magnetic brake blocks installed along the length of a train and another where there would be the use of a more expensive but innovative braking concept based on electromagnetism rather than friction, also known as eddy current braking. The first concept was deemed as cost-effective due to less energy consumption, as well as suitable for helping with the improvement of wheel-rail adhesion, especially in the leaf-fall season and snowy winters when there would be slip between the wheels and the rail due to loss of friction. It was also ascertained that direct frictional contact with the track would result in some degradation of the rails but at the same time also result in the removal of existing surface cracks and stop them from propagating. It was concluded that the second approach was more suitable for high-speed railway lines where the potential damage to the track would be more and the benefits obtained would outweigh the costs associated with installation and operation of eddy current brakes. It was also concluded that the addition of magnetic track brakes to the UK rolling stock would allow for the overall reduction of the headway, i.e. the safe distance to keep between two trains apart, and thus increase the network capacity or the ability to run more trains on the network. I was one of the presenters on the Future of Rail for the South-West Railway Division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers where I won an award and a cash-prize for my presentation. (This would also be a memorable project) 

I worked there on a variety of interesting projects around R&D, Product Development and after-market maintenance. A senior colleague of mine suggested applying to Birmingham if I desired exposure to a breadth of subjects surrounding the railways. My experience at Knorr-Bremse made me aware of the tremendous potential for innovation in the railways and the value that it would add to people’s lives. Thus I enquired about opportunities at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), for a new intellectual challenge and to further my education.    

I was accepted to do a fully funded, railways-focused PhD in Engineering at the University of Birmingham. 

Tell us, how did you get to where you are today?

The ability to answer any question starts with research. This could be through reading literature (on newspapers, the web etc.) or by learning from other people’s experiences. 

Leadership roles: 

Young Rail Professionals are a network for young professionals from across the rail industry in the UK. They aim at bringing together professionals from across the industry (academia/industry) to help retain talent by educating professionals about the wide range of opportunities in the sector. After starting my PhD, I got involved with the local committee, progressing on to the External Relations Manager role and subsequently to the Regional Chairman role. This was a unique opportunity since I got first-hand experience of managing a budget and a team of industry professionals to deliver YRP’s mission.

At the university, I was appointed to manage a team of PhD researchers and students to deliver the design and development of a miniature battery-electric locomotive. These experiences not only increased my network and visibility but have also improved the confidence and ability to step up to take on professional responsibility.  

How did you get your first break?

In the UK, the concept of campus interviews is almost non-existent. Instead, there are career fairs where potential employers have a chat with interested students about placement and graduate roles that they advertise. Centralised graduate recruitment then takes place where students from universities across the UK apply to the advertised roles. 

I had to go through this standard approach, where I applied through the company’s (Knorr-Bremse) website and was selected following a two-round interview. Networking, being proactive and communicating with employers about their company culture and requirements helped my application stand out and pass the initial screening test.

Whilst applying for my PhD, my existing work experience in a relevant field from a well-known organization improved the genuineness of my application and simplified the procedure for obtaining an offer and a scholarship along with a stipend from the university. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

The first job

Whilst applying for my first role, I had very little work experience, unlike my peers from the west who had obtained work experience from a variety of part-time roles since high school. The culture is different from India, where the emphasis is on finishing your education first before obtaining work experience. I addressed this gap by joining various student societies, such as the Formula Student team at the university and making my practical engineering skills strong and marketable. I also had the advantage of finishing an Engineering Diploma, which I capitalized on. On obtaining my first role, I joined various networking and professional development bodies in my field and met with professionals from a diverse range of organisations from within the engineering and rail sector. I also collaborated on projects internationally within the wider Knorr-Bremse group and did an award-winning presentation for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on ‘Magnetic Track Brakes for the UK market’. 

Challenge 2: 

Prospects and career path

The next challenge was evaluating what I liked and where my experience and education could take me next. I wished to continue my education but needed funding to continue. Whilst studying for my degree, I managed to bag a research project from the R&D department of Knorr-Bremse for my dissertation. With the will to continue doing what I enjoyed, I capitalised on my education and work experience & started applying for PhD studentships and graduate roles that required relevant research skills and experience. Had I just gone on to obtain a degree without really focusing on work experience, continuing my career in the UK would have become more challenging due to the tough competition and immigration rules at the time.

Challenge 3: 

Applying and getting selected to do a PhD

I went beyond applying online for roles and took an effort to communicate directly with potential supervisors at universities. The dream was to do a PhD at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, the largest and the best university-based railway research group in Europe. My supervisor, Professor Clive Roberts, who is also the current Director of the Railway research group and the Head of School of Engineering at the University of Birmingham saw value in my educational achievements, research, writing and networking experience in the sector and helped recognize funded projects in my field of interest of structural mechanics, materials and Finite Element Analysis. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I am a PhD Researcher in computational modelling and condition monitoring of permanent way infrastructure at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), University of Birmingham. I am currently working on modelling the interactions between trains and railway tracks to determine the placement of sensors on railway civil infrastructures for the continuous monitoring of their structural health. This model would also aim to function as a digital twin of the infrastructure asset to inform infrastructure managers about potential damage to the asset and carry out predictive maintenance. 

This research requires a good understanding of the Finite Element approach, good engineering drawing and 3D solid modelling skills for model development and the understanding of physical principles behind train-track dynamic interactions and wheel-rail contact. Some of the core engineering knowledge was obtained through my engineering degree, practical modelling skills were learnt in my previous industrial role and specialist railway knowledge on train-track interactions, condition monitoring and sensing were learnt throughout the PhD research journey. 

A typical day involves either reading about the latest research in my field and the wider railway industry, carrying out analyses and simulations, writing up articles for research dissemination or a combination of a few or all of them! Seldom, it might involve attending conferences at home or abroad to communicate my research, which is currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

How does your work benefit society? 

I feel really satisfied that the research that we carry out at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education has high industrial impact. There is a huge emphasis on the transferability of research to the industry and much of the research that is carried out is in collaboration with the industry with emphasis on direct implementation. 

Railway Switches and Crossings account for just 4% of the total track mileage in the UK but contribute to over 20% of the maintenance and renewal budgets of the UK’s rail infrastructure manager. A similar trend is observed across countries around the world. Digital twins for predictive maintenance of railway assets enabled through Digital technologies for data acquisition and analysis have tremendous potential for reducing cost and time delays and improving the reliability of railway networks. My research thus hopes to benefit millions of passengers that use railway networks by informing the network operators about anticipated disruptions so that they can take preventative actions well in advance.

Memorable Project?

Another impactful, fulfilling and memorable project that I was a part of was on the investigation of alternative surface treatment methods for the company’s products that had hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic chemical compound that was going to be banned from the wider manufacturing supply chain. I was presented with an opportunity to find alternatives to an existing surface treatment method, recognizing suppliers and prices, as well as researching standards and planning tests to validate the proposed approaches. After recognizing multiple alternatives to the existing approach, I proposed corrosion and abrasion resistance tests and facilitated the machining and coating of multiple test samples. The samples were tested rigorously for months and concluded with the discovery of a close performance match for our existing method, which was both cost-effective and suitable for use on our existing products. Later, I used the same approach to validate a proposed surface treatment method for a new product of the company. This was one of the first projects where I was able to add large-scale value to benefit the company and our stakeholders, an aspect that I have always cherished about our field.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • Stay hungry and inquisitive. 
  • Look for work experience, capitalize on it when the time arrives and seize opportunities!
  • Network and learn from other people.

Future Plans?

I am currently focused on making a good technical contribution to my field of research and finishing my Doctorate. In the future, I would aim at professional registration and contributing to projects that help address challenges to transportation and infrastructure in the industry or academia.