How did you get into the rail industry?
I got in the rail industry very much by accident. I was offered 2 jobs at age 16, straight after school: one in a diesel pump factory and one working for London South Eastern Railway. Everyone, from my friends to my neighbours and my parents recommended I join the rail industry, I think because few rail workers were known to have ever left the sector and rail had the reputation of being a ‘job for life’. It was the best decision I have ever made. Shortly after starting at LSER, I fell in love with the rail sector and have never looked back. I met many very experienced engineers, many of whom had been in rail from their teenage years, and I quickly realised that it was an environment I could see myself in looking ahead 20 years. I felt comfortable with the close-knit, almost ‘family’ like team I quickly became a part of. I now have been at LSER for 5 years, 4 years as an apprentice and the last year and a half as a fleet planning engineer and I absolutely love it!
What do you do?
I manage a fleet of trains, the Class 465, 466, 376 and 375. They operate on the London south eastern route, bringing commuters into the city every day. My title is a Fleet Planning Engineer. My role is to organise the maintenance and overhauls of the trains and monitor their mileage regularly to ensure they are safe to run. I draft large scale maintenance plans, ensuring every train is brought into our maintenance depots and worked on as and when required. The fleet of trains operated by LSER is very large and only a few trains must be stopped at any one time in order to ensure we maintain a good service. I have to prioritise the maintenance work and decide what defects on a particular train should be rectified first. It is a constant balance between maintaining our fleet to the best standards and running a service every day and night. Finding a balance between these two priorities is my challenge and responsibility day in, day out.
I work with a stock maintenance controller. I inform him of when and where the trains are needed for the maintenance works to be carried out. I also work closely with the Kent Integrated Control Centre (KICC) which communicates with all the train operating companies and manages the train services to ensure a smooth running and commute for passengers.
I work shifts, day and night: 12 hours nights and 12 hours day. There are 4 of us in the office, 2 controllers, my manager and myself. When 2 are at work, 2 are off. At the weekend, only one of us is working, the others are on call.
With this roster, I get 4 full days off a week which means some weeks I feel I spend more time off work than I do actually at work! The advantage is that it gives me plenty of time to rest and enjoy quality time with my family and friends. I also manage to go to the gym 6 days a week! It is all about how you manage your time, and making sure you rest when you have opportunities. I do get weekends when I am not able to go out with my friends but it makes up for it when I can surprise my mum with a weekend away!
What is a typical day/night?
The first hour and a half of my shift see me reviewing the maintenance work undertaken during the previous shift, including analysing any problems that may have arisen in the last 12 hours. That involves a certain amount of exams and checks and is a little bit like a puzzle: I have to analyse the data available to me and decide on the most efficient way to balance the carrying out of the necessary maintenance on the trains and the running the service going forward. This includes chasing for approvals to run the trains, decide what maintenance will need to be completed during the 12 hours of my shift and what maintenance will need to be completed during the 12 hours following my shift.
I have a “currency” of 200 man hours to “spend” in each shift, i.e. to allocate for the carrying out of the maintenance on various trains during the 12 hours of my shift.
While spending a majority of my day looking ahead the next 12 hours, I also spend a lot of my time looking far further ahead. I produce long term plans for heavy maintenance, for instance wheel changes or air conditioning unit changes. This is especially crucial when we start a new season: leaf fall season is an important time of the year for us as from past experiences it potentially involves a lot of disruption to services, so we try and prepare ourselves for the worst in order to maintain a good running service.
Last year, a new programme was implemented and it was a learning curve! We moved our maintenance regime from “mileage based” to “date based” which meant that every 50 days a unit was brought in for an “exam” where every single system of the train was tested and maintained. This was a huge change for us as we were used to maintaining trains every 15,000 miles ran which meant a maintenance regime a lot more ad hoc and a much messier schedule. Every 50 days is a lot more methodical and easier to see ahead and we are able to see what exact trains will be in for maintenance Christmas Day 2017!
What aspects of the job do you find the most challenging?
I have to manage objectives, priorities and conflicts of interests. For instance, on one occasion, I was on a night shift. It was a Friday night. That night, LSER was hit by 13 tree strikes on the mainline, one of which caused a train to be stopped completely near Gillingham station for 4 hours just before midnight. Passengers were stranded on the train which was horrible for them but we could neither move the train forward because a tree was laying on the track ahead nor drive the train back to the station because that would have been too dangerous. Tempers were flaring. Frustratingly, I could not do anything but sit and wait for the track to be cleared and I had to show great deal of communication and interpersonal skills to ensure all different parts of business were aware of the problems and these were resolved as soon as possible. But it all worked itself out well in the end and we got recognition for a delicate situation well handled.
What do you like the most about your job/the rail industry?
The excitement! Every day is a different, it is a constant challenge but the people I work with are great, we all care deeply about the railway, we care that it goes well, that helps me work better. I currently have an apprentice and I am very excited at showing her my job, she understands my passion and shares it!
What made/makes you stay in the rail sector?
I couldn’t bear to leave it! I am so attached to the industry. I get really on edge when I am on leave and I become aware of a sudden challenge that I am not there to help with!
What do you think could be improved within the rail industry for you personally?
If people realised how difficult and challenging it is to run the railway, they would not criticise it so much. We deeply care about the railway and we need to ensure people understand what we do. We also need more women to join the industry and more talented engineers. That will only happen if we change the perception of rail, help the young generations to understand rail is a lot more modern than they think.
What would you say to a young graduate/woman considering a career in rail?
Go for it!!!!! I have never for one second regretted joining the rail sector. It is an amazing industry to work in.
What would you say is the biggest achievement of your career to date?
I never thought I could do engineering as I did not believe in myself or my abilities. You could say I was lacking in self-confidence. I did not think I was any good at math originally but then, at school, I had a wonderful teacher. I guess he saw my potential: he showed me I could do math and helped me discover that math is fascinating as you can use it for everything! I quickly developed a fascination for math engineering.
I gained a lot from doing engineering and can only recommend it to every young person. Becoming an engineer becomes a way of life after a while, the way you tackle problems becomes more methodical and you learn to trust your instinct. It is amazing, you start to realise you deal with every life situation in such a methodical way. You build your self-confidence and learn to trust your decisions because you know you made an educated choice. That is one thing I would have never gained if I had not joined the rail, I would not be half the confident, strong woman I am today.
Why did you join Women in Rail?
Women want to make a difference and Women in Rail give them a voice, bring them together, get them a chance to network but also give them support and help them realise their potential. Women in Rail is passionate about the railway, just like us and they understand how to help us.
Interviewed September 2014