Interview with Nisrine Chartouny

Project Manager, Crossrail

How did you get into the rail industry?

It was by accident. I have always known I wanted to be an engineer and particularly a civil engineer. My family is one full of engineers too. I joined an American company Bechtel in London in 2006 and worked on Infrastructure Projects that have allowed me to travel significantly. I have worked on an airport project in Qatar, working in Romania, worked on projects in the US. I had always worked in the construction department and decided to go for a rotation with project controls. An opportunity arose on the Crossrail project in the early design and development stages in 2008. I wasn’t particularly interested in the rail sector per se at the time but having now spent 6 and a half years on Crossrail, I can tell you I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

What do you do?

I am Lebanese and got my qualifications in Civil Engineering (Bachelor of Civil Engineering, American University of Beirut and Masters Degree in Construction Engineering & Project Management, University of Texas) both in Lebanon and the US. I have worked with a Lebanese/Singaporian joint venture on high rise buildings, with local contractors on road works in the USA in addition to the projects I have already mentioned. I am now based in London and have been working on the Crossrail project for the last 6 and a half years as Bechtel is a delivery partner for Crossrail. I started with roles in project controls and moved on to a Business Manager in a contractual and commercial role and have been a Project Manager for the last couple years –most of which was on the Farringdon station project.

What is a typical shift?

In this role, I don’t need to do shifts – that was only when I was a field engineer – but the site itself is a 24/7 operation and it can be long hours. But, given I enjoy what I do, I do those hours by choice.

What aspects of the job do you find the most challenging?

Initially, I thought that the challenges would mostly be technical. We are working in the middle of London in the city and need to ensure our works cause minimum disruption. In reality, most of the challenges come from managing the interfaces. If you think about where the station is located, we’re next to Barbican station on one side, and the existing Farringdon tube and Thameslink stations on the other, and all these stations have to remain fully operational -, not to forget the markets, shops, residents; actually the area is covered by 3 local authorities. Trying to understand everyone’s perspectives and then coming up with solutions that are acceptable to all parties, not just some, is a continual challenge. Remember that this is almost a 10 year project which residents and local authorities thought would be 10 years of constant disruption so it was important to initially and continually prove that our aim was to minimise disruption wherever possible. This is a constant challenge given the project moves on to different stages throughout the 10 years.

What do you like the most about your job/the rail industry?

There are a couple of things I like the most: the nature of the work we are doing and its overall positive impact on the community as we are building a central London link; and also the people I work with and the daily interaction I have with them all; in our industry you’re often working with passionate and motivated people which is great.

What made/makes you stay in the rail sector?

The big impact on the communities who benefit from the projects generates a great sense of satisfaction for one, and also Crossrail in itself is so unique. Not only is it the biggest project in Europe, we are working in London where back in 1863 railway engineers built the first underground in the world which used to run from Paddington to Farringdon; and here we are using the latest technology to build the newest railway in London and connect to the oldest part of the network. It is such a privilege to be doing so.

What do you think could be improved within the rail industry for you personally?

More open mindedness to new ideas. A lot is already happening within Crossrail itself with BIM and other safety and engineering innovations, but the industry overall will benefit from this. It’s a little bit easier to drive these changes on Crossrail because of the sheer scale of the project to begin with but also the mentality and aspirations of the senior management leading the project.

What do you think the rail industry should start doing, stop doing or continue to do to support women within the rail industry?

I realise this will come across as a generalisation but younger people don’t seem as interested in rail. They look back at the history of the industry and don’t think much has changed. It is key that we all use every opportunity to talk about just how enjoyable, challenging and varied our work is.

There is also a wrong perception about the tough working hours with night shifts being expected. The industry does provide flexibility and indeed there are many roles that can be done in engineering that can allow for flexibility and normal working hours. This applies to both women and men though. It does need to be recognised that younger people (men and women) often have other expectations of work life balance and the industry needs to show more acceptance of different priorities.

What about to attract more women within the rail sector?

We need to address the perception that young girls have of what engineering is all about and this needs to start at a young age, particularly as it is between the ages of 7 and 12 that children start to make their minds up about what they want to do. Crossrail actively reaches out to different schools in the areas of London impacted by the project to raise awareness.

There is a large perception that the sector is all about manual labour. Meeting some young girls recently as part of the Crossrail awareness programme, some of them were surprised I wasn’t bigger physically with more muscles. Back in Lebanon, the career path of an engineer is well understood and respected but this doesn’t seem to always be the case here in the UK. Crossrail’s recent TV documentary which aired on the BBC in July and August has also been helping understand the variety of what can be achieved on the project outside of manual labour jobs.

What would you say to a young graduate/woman considering a career in rail?

Give it a try – you won’t regret it. I have not met anyone who is not impressed or pleasantly surprised when they join. It is fun and rewarding too.

What would you say is the biggest achievement of your career to date?

Becoming the Project Manager on Farringdon station was my biggest achievement to date as I had to prove myself to my employer and client and build that trust up. At the time, I was the youngest Project Manager on the project and I didn’t necessarily realise that it wasn’t very common for women to be in leadership positions in the industry in general, although things are different on Crossrail with 30% of the Project Managers being women. Delivering and ultimately gaining the trust of people is a real success.

 

Interviewed August 2014