It was by complete accident. I qualified for an industry placement at my university where I studied Mechanical Engineering. I was looking for a company close to home, which happened to be Network Rail in York. I worked for four months during my summer. Network Rail then sponsored my final year dissertation. Following graduation I joined Network Rail as an Electrification Engineer and I never looked back!
I’ve joined Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) as head of the rail team, and there are lots of different aspects to that. There are the day-to-day operations, obviously, but there’s also community rail – the Friends of Stations and the Rail User Groups – and all the questions and queries from MPs, councillors and complainants.
Then there’s Rail North, a Ltd. company comprising northern cities responsible for letting the Northern and TransPennine Express rail franchises. Transport for Greater Manchester is putting a lot of resource into that, and we have three people on secondment with the Department for Transport in London.
We also have the strategic side of rail, like HS2, HS3 and Transport for North, and all the current major projects such as Northern Hub and the Electrification Programme.
It’s hard to explain as a typical day rarely exists. Perhaps on one day I may be at a meeting in the morning to discuss the network rail strike, which could be followed by a meeting to discuss investment in Salford Central Station as part of the Northern Hub. After this, I could be pulled into a planning session to go over the plans for Transport in the North which would involve discussions around setting future strategies.
The contrast between day-to-day operations, strategic planning for the future, reacting to industry challenges such as rail strikes, and changing the industry to be adept at embracing the future is hard to manage. My role is so varied that it can be tough ensuring all of the aspects of it fit together, and making sure every part of it gets the attention that is required.
Because a big chunk of my role is to make the industry more future-proof and forward facing, it makes my day-to-day job very exciting and dynamic, yet challenging. The challenge of making travel easy for passengers today whilst creating something totally new for the industry, built around my own vision, means building my own teams and generating my own working practices; and it’s one of the most rewarding challenges I could ever be faced with.
I spent six months looking for a new international job that would give me new and varied experience whilst finishing my work on HS2, but I found that the best opportunity was in UK rail. What made me stay is what makes me tick: making a difference to people and implementing a strategy that the industry needs to excel into the future. I have a great loyalty to this industry, and to everyone within it. With all of the experience this industry has given me, I feel like I owe it to UK rail to give back what I have gained. Also, the momentum and influence that is coming from UK politics currently means that the possibilities for rail are more attainable than ever; how could I leave!?
Young grads should never judge an industry before trying it out. Network Rail has over 35,000 employees that span planning, through to HR and engineering. The best thing about rail is that once you are in the industry, you have a job for life! This means you can either specialise in your chosen practice or move around, and try something new. You have complete flexibility as well as bundles of support from the people around you.
Women in Rail is doing such a fantastic job of raising the profile of all of the jobs available within the rail industry. This platform is crucial for the rail sector; by promoting diversity it sheds light on all that is possible within rail, which in turn brings much needed resources into this thriving industry.
I don’t think that being a woman comes into it. I’ve worked in roles where men outnumber women for most of my career, however when I was working on HS2 there were actually more women than men on the board. It was only when the project began to evolve, that the number of men began to overshadow the women as they made up the majority of the engineers and construction specialists. Being amongst these women at this stage of my career empowered me as it freed me from distracting assumptions that I was being judged.
The most rewarding thing about being in a senior position is that I can influence the industry’s future. I can question the status quo, and I have the fantastic privilege to create things that can leave a lasting impact on the industry.
I think that all individuals handle leadership differently. Aside from the archetype female and male behaviours, I have worked with very forceful women and very collaborative men, so I think it’s hard to divide these leadership styles by gender. However, I’ve found that women have an alternative way of questioning and presenting ideas that can very much compliment a male dominated approach. I would say that, in this way, women add new perspectives to daily challenges. Fundamentally, this is the advantage of diverse employment, not just of diverse gender in the workplace.
A woman who inspired my career, Alison Munro at High Speed Two (HS2), was open and authentic, in a firm yet gentle way. There was no bravado or aggression to her, yet she asserted her authority through knowledge, facts and strong rationale. She instilled the confidence in those around her that she was the person for the job. To me, she proved there was no need to define your style as male or female, but to lead in the way that suits you, and what is required of your role.
Interviewed August 2015