How did you get into the rail industry, was it by choice or accident?
A bit of both. My Dad was an engineer in aerospace but I never really discussed engineering with him. There was no pressure. I joined the air cadets at 15 and through the various classes we did, along with being good at maths and science, I got interested in engineering. When it came to decide which career I wanted to do, I hesitated between entering the police force and studying engineering. When I got decent A-levels and an offer from Sheffield, the latter won. When I decided I wanted to be an engineer I had not chosen to study Physics at A-level which meant I had to do a foundation year at University. During this year, I applied for sponsorship with many companies but the British Rail sponsorship was the best one: they offered structured training, a generous bursary, guaranteed summer and year-out placements and free rail travel!
What do you do?
I joined the rail industry in 1990 as an Engineering Management Trainee with BR. I trained in various departments, including depot training at Tinsley in South Yorkshire, working on the tools on large diesel locomotives.
In 1994, as I graduated and BR prepared for privatisation, I was allocated to BRML Doncaster where I undertook various production management roles dealing with complex engineering projects: supervising heavy overhaul of rail vehicles, conversion type works and crash damage repair works. I was also involved in process development and managing teams.
In 1996, I moved from Doncaster to Derby to work at ABB. I started in a project engineering role on vehicle refurbishment projects, then took a project management role working with the crash damage team. One project was managing the rebuilding of the Class 323 unit damaged during the Watford collision. I had to supervise the building of three new bodyshells and provided the link between the design engineering, production management and shop floor. During this project, crash damage work was moved from Derby to Crewe so I relocated there, continuing to work on the Watford units and other vehicle repairs as well as converting an old slam-door unit into a test train for the new Adtranz traction equipment. I also led the conversion of an old coach into a rig for filming a television programme for Granada TV.
At the start of 2000, I joined Atkins and moved back to Derby where I undertook a role as Project Manager. I managed a variety of engineering and maintenance projects, essentially as engineering consultant. I did also some account management and managed the mechanical engineering team for a while to cover for a secondment.
Whilst at Atkins, I became pregnant and requested part time work – before the right to request was made law. That was granted immediately: the company was open to the idea and I had full managerial support. I initially changed my working patterns from 5 days to 4 days per week. My role at the time was to manage the safety case and NOBO assessment on the Class 222 Meridian build and it involved travelling to Belgium a fair bit. I had my daughter in 2004 and when I returned to work, Atkins agreed to a 3 days per week arrangement. I continued engineering consultancy project work at Atkins until 2007 when I joined Porterbrook.
My first day at Porterbrook was interesting: I was originally recruited to job share with another lady. The role was split: 3 days per week with a day overlap. It was a natural fit and our skills complemented each other. However, on my first day at Porterbrook, I was asked to cover the New Trains Engineer role for a short time. I ended up doing that role for 2 years before doing the role I was originally hired for. This goes to show that the rail industry is always full of great opportunities and there never is a dull moment!
Once the Electrostars had been delivered to the train operating company and I had handed them over to the fleet team, I was transferred to the job share I was originally meant to do at Porterbrook. When my job-sharing colleague announced that she intended to retire in early 2015, I asked for another challenge. The logistics and configuration role I had been doing was inwards focussed so I asked for a role which would enable me to work with suppliers and customers. I am currently managing the Class 387 delivery out of Bombardier, working with Southern to ensure the contractual obligations are met and the trains are performing as required.
What is a typical day?
It is a mixture of working at Porterbrook’s offices, dealing with various business areas and the fleet teams, reviewing design submissions, modifications, performance, and working off site at Litchurch lane, liaising with the new build project team, addressing any arising problems and working with Southern’s project team to make sure that what Bombardier is delivering meets the requirements of the customer and is in accordance with the programme.
What aspects of the job do you find the most challenging?
Keeping up with the political changes affecting the project. Understanding the unspoken reason behind decisions and the interaction between technical issues can also be a challenge.
What do you like the most about your job/the rail industry?
The interface with people: building relationships, resolving issues, collaborating on projects. There is continuity within the rail industry. One often gets to work with people with whom one has worked previously. The industry is essentially based on relationships.
What made/makes you stay in the rail sector?
I can’t imagine getting the same level of variety in my role in any other industry. I have not needed to leave because I never got “bored”. Boredom is not something that happens in the rail industry!
What do you think could be improved within the rail industry for you personally?
Providing a support network to help retain women who have chosen to work flexibly – Women in Rail does a great job of this. The industry needs to be more adaptable and flexible to the needs of the women working in the sector, particularly those returning to work after maternity leave. There also needs to be a better understanding that spending long hours in the office does not directly equate to value added!
What would you say to a young graduate considering a career in rail?
Go for it! It is an amazing industry to work in, full of opportunities.
I live in Derby and get to speak at my daughter’s school about engineering and rail. It opens young girls’ eyes to the fact that they have this amazing industry at their doorstep. It is very important to get them the message that everything is possible and engineering is an exciting option and that “you are allowed to be different”.
Alongside my day job, I am also scheme manager for our IMechE graduate training scheme. We have five young engineers working on the scheme at the moment. I am in charge of the ongoing management of that scheme and making sure our graduates develop their competences and that they have access to a mentor and placement opportunities. We go to five or six university career fairs in the autumn and talk to about 100 people at each. In January, we get the CVs, review them and carry out the first interview. In March, it is selection day and we choose the most suitable candidate for Porterbrook.
Whenever I talk to young girls at career fairs or schools, I make sure I showcase female engineers, talk about the opportunities the rail industry has to offer and the support available through initiatives such as Women in Rail. Rail is relatively unknown and unappreciated. We have to change this image and show rail for the innovative and modern industry that it is, full of great career opportunities.
What would you say is the biggest achievement of your career to date?
Successfully managing to balance my career and my family and achieve a work/life balance – though it is sometimes hard to achieve.
What is the most rewarding thing about being a woman who has achieved a senior role in her career?
Having the experience and steadiness to say “don’t panic” and “be more confident” to another woman or girl; being able to give something back.
Do you think men and women handle leadership roles differently?
It depends on the man and the woman! What makes a good leader is consistency, integrity and honesty, not gender. I do think that women are less likely to be self-promoting – this is evidenced by responses to job adverts, women feel they have to fulfil 100% of the criteria before they will apply.
Interviewed April 2015