Electrification of the Great Western main line (GWML) reached a new milestone at the end of October when, following the installation of overhead electrical equipment from Didcot Parkway, the first revenue service operating under electric power pulled into Swindon station.
Once timetable changes are implemented in 2019, passengers will enjoy more frequent, faster services from Swindon into London Paddington thanks to Great Western Railway’s state-of-the-art Class 800s now running under wires. By Christmas, Network Rail has said that the line will be electrified all the way to Bristol Parkway and, by November 2019, it is aiming to electrify the GWML to Cardiff.
Route managing director Mark Langman said that electrification to Swindon represented a “significant milestone” that will provide a major boost to the historic railway town and its economy – a win for passengers and a win for locals.
Electrification forms a key part of the biggest upgrade to the GWML since it was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1840s, when steam locomotives ran through the great towns of the South West. Times have changed, and more than the means of traction.
Following the recent departure and subsequent replacement of the notified body (NoBo) lead, all four key safety assurance positions in the £2.8 billion Wales and Western electrification project are filled by women – an entirely different cause for celebration.
Like many safety critical sectors, railways have stakeholders – governments, regulators and passengers – who all expect a degree of third party assurance on issues related to safety and quality. Therefore, authorisation of the project’s infrastructure for use by passenger trains is not possible without Network Rail’s Jane Austin, the region’s head of engineering, and Jo Griffiths, principal system safety engineer, as well as representatives Carolyn Salmon, assessment body (AsBo) lead, and Daniela Phillips, NoBo lead, both from independent body Ricardo Certification, giving the green light.
More than 175 years ago, none of the project job roles would be filled by women, never mind four of the most important.
Overseeing the approval of complex systems in a safety critical environment means the four are understandably very busy, but, for one hour in October, the quartet sat down for an (almost) uninterrupted discussion with Rail Engineer to talk about the project’s progress, their careers and what it’s like working in a traditionally male-dominated world.
From engineers to train drivers and project managers, across the industry more and more women are entering the rail sector, but the numbers are still low. Figures from Women in Rail reveal that women make up around 16 per cent of the sector’s workforce, with an even smaller number in senior positions. For example, of Network Rail’s 431 employees in its highest salary tier Band 1 (£78,624-£186,486, according to data from 2017) only 66, or 15 per cent, are women, including Jane Austin.
Nevertheless, Jane, Jo, Carolyn and Daniela are adamant that there are no obstacles to women entering and finding success in the rail industry.
“The only time I’ve been prevented from going on site was when I was pregnant‚” explained Jo, who has worked abroad, started a family with two children and has become a chartered engineer and a fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) since the turn of the century. “If you know what you want to do, and you know where you want to go, you will find a way and make the rest of your life happen with it.”
Jo, who admits she has taken “the most vanilla” route of the four, graduated as a civil engineer 18 years ago and hasn’t looked back since. After building waste-water treatment works for construction firm the Miller Group, she joined Atkins Rail as a graduate designer and then left for Network Rail’s assessment management team in the Midlands route. Following the Great Heck rail crash of 2001 – the country’s worst rail disaster of the 21st century, when a land rover crashed down a motorway embankment onto the railway line, causing a high-speed train accident – Jo was tasked with risk assessing all of her region’s bridges. She then returned to Atkins before taking up the role she occupies today.
“When I started working in rail, I assumed it would be this male dominated world, and that they wouldn’t take me seriously,” added Daniela, who studied politics and wanted to work for the European Union before she fell in love with rail. “I’ve been so lucky; I’ve never once experienced that.
“If you know your stuff, then they respect you regardless of whether you are male or female.”
On her journey from university to Ricardo, Daniela has worked for the Office of Road and Rail, the European Railway Agency – looking after northern European, Scandinavian and Eastern European countries in the cross acceptance team – Lloyd’s Register (now a part of Ricardo) and Steer, where she recently re-wrote all of the technical standards for the Department for Transport in case of a no-deal Brexit situation. The only non-engineer of the group, Daniela then joined Ricardo.
Carolyn’s story is completely different once more. She started her career as a mathematics graduate, working as a safety engineer across rail, nuclear and avionics for the likes of Lloyd’s Register, ERA Technology (where she became the operations manager for the safety and EMC group), RINA Consulting and now Ricardo. A chartered engineer and mother of two, Carolyn said that her employer was flexible when she had two young children, allowing her to go down to a three-day working week for 12 years. She only returned to full-time work when she was offered a managerial position.
“It was a bit of a juggling act sometimes,” she said. “But it meant I never gave up my career.”
Perceptions and unnecessary pressures
None of the four women said they feel being a woman in the rail industry has held them back, although they all agreed there is a perception that they have to be better to succeed, aided by some unhelpful comments.
“You feel like you have to be better, you feel like you have to prove yourself,” explained Jane, a chartered engineer and fellow of the ICE. “I can remember being pulled into someone’s office and they sat me down and said: ‘Jane, you’re the first girl at this level [Band 1], please don’t let me down.’
“I think as women, potentially we feel a little bit more pressure than men – but I don’t know, because I’m not a man.”
Jane, the final ‘key player’ when it comes to assurance of the Wales and Western electrification project, left school aged 16 to become a draftswoman. She re-took her O Levels at night school and attained an Ordinary National Certificate and then a Higher National Certificate. At the time, she worked on non-rail structures until her boss advised her to pack it all in, to head to university and obtain a degree. Jane said she initially thought it was “a silly idea” but, aged 21, came around to it to study civil engineering for three years, finishing with first class honours despite leaving school with just one O Level.
Spells at Readymix Concrete followed before she joined British Rail’s management trainee apprenticeship scheme in 1992 as the only woman on the programme, the start of a long relationship with the infrastructure owner. Moves to Railtrack and Network Rail followed, working as an assistant resident engineer, resident engineer, assistant project manager, senior programme engineering manager, head of track for track renewals and switches and crossings and now head of engineering, a role she has held for the past six years.
Encouraging women to join rail
The issue of a lack of women in the sector isn’t the result of barriers and a lack of opportunities, the group said, but through not encouraging enough girls to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects from an early age.
According to Women in Science and Engineering data from 2014, the overall proportion of girls doing STEM subjects drops off at A-level, with lower numbers of females compared to males being entered for all STEM subjects, except biology.
“You can’t attract more women if more women are not going in to do the subjects in the first place”, said Jo. “The math just doesn’t add up.”
A key element to encouraging a greater take up is through tackling the misconceptions people have of the industry and what an engineer looks like. Jane said she recently welcomed a secondary school teacher, who had been given the role of careers development for engineering, into her team for a week, to plug the huge knowledge gap they had of the profession.
“We need to somehow help the education department in the fact that not many teachers have ever been engineers, so, therefore, are they really promoting it?” she said. “The point is, I don’t think our younger generation really understand what these jobs are, and what’s available to them, because it seems we don’t get any of that when they’re going through school.
“They should realise that, actually, it’s not a dirty, horrible, wet, vile world out there, because you can do all different types of engineering. You can be on a building site, or you can be on a nice warm office.
“It’s not just girls, it is girls and boys because we need more engineers. So it’s about how we encourage both sexes, really, to become engineers, because it’s still not thought of as a great career opportunity – but it’s a fantastic one.”
Jo, who is a STEM ambassador at the Swindon City club of the ICE, summed up the challenge succinctly: “How do you know you want to be an engineer if you’ve never even heard of the word?”
Between the quartet, they have been involved in the rail industry for almost 80 years and, in their experience, there is nothing stopping women from succeeding.
Jo, who admits there are still challenges to overcome – she often answers the phone to someone assuming they’ve reached the wrong person, because of her unisex name – added: “Male-dominated does not equate to female-does-not-succeed.”
“If you’re good at what you do, people will see that,” concluded Jane.
As the hands on the clock face reached the hour mark, the four dashed off for an important decision-making meeting that would lead to Swindon welcoming the first electric, passenger train.
In Victorian Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of many pioneers who led a wave of great change during the Industrial Revolution, forever altering the face of the country’s landscape.
Jane, Jo, Carolyn and Daniela, through their work on the biggest upgrade to the GMWL since Brunel, and as great role models for women in rail, are helping to do the same in modern day Britain.