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Network Rail: Women in the rail industry

Category: Industry News, Engineering, Administrator, maintenance, glamourous, perception

Network Rail: Women in the rail industry

Anyone could be forgiven for thinking the phrase ‘It’s a man’s world’ fitted Network Rail like a hand in a clichéd glove.

Rewind a couple of decades and that would certainly have been true of the rail industry. But not so today, says the company, which owns and manages most of the rail network in England, Scotland and Wales.

Network Rail’s managing director of the Western route, Mark Langman, says the company has been working hard to attract women into engineering, through its graduate and apprenticeship programmes, as well as its office-based jobs.

He said: “Historically, the rail industry is seen as macho and male-dominated. It is difficult to attract young women into the industry and we’re working hard to address that. We’re particularly successful in our office-based locations, where there is a high ratio of women, which is really good. But where we are still struggling is in the traditional engineer front-line operational activities, which is what that macho image is all about.

“It is hard for young women today, weighing up the attractions of glamourous careers against what might be seen as the rough end of the job - it is really difficult to compete against that perception.”

Three women on the front line who have all found a job they love with Network Rail agree that you do spend a lot of your time wearing high-vis orange safety clothing – but they say that part of the attraction is that each day is different.

Take 29-year-old Claire Notton, from Kingswood, who joined Network Rail in June 2005 on secondment as a signal box administrator. Her role was to plan the maintenance schedule for the coming year, and it gave her the ambition to learn more about the engineering involved and to be out on the tracks as part of a maintenance team.

Funded by Network Rail, she took a two-year BTech course in construction engineering, studying one day a week at the City of Bristol College at Ashley Down, and gaining a distinction along the way.

Her ambition is to go on and take an engineering degree, again with the backing of Network Rail. But all that is on hold for the moment while she takes a year out to bring up her six-month-old son, Micky. “It was hard work caring for a new-born while juggling my course work. Every time he went down for a nap I would crack on with my studies.

“Network Rail has been so supportive. They saw potential in me, and believed in me.

“I love my job. Every day I wake up and think I’m glad to be going to work – I doubt there are many that can say that.”

Helen Warren always wanted to be an engineer and was supported through university by a Quest scholarship from the Institution of Civil Engineers. As part of the package she was paired with Network Rail, working her summer holidays with a track maintenance team, and with the prospect of a job at the end of her degree and Masters studies in civil and coastal engineering.

She maintains women can do just as much as men even when tackling the heavy duty jobs on the track, but it’s more a matter of technique than physical strength. Take shovelling ballast, which she loves. “It’s not just using the back, but making the power go through the legs,” she advises.

At 29, Helen is the track maintenance engineer for the Bristol area, managing a team of around 150 across specialisms such as welding, ultra-sonic testing, signals, crossings and telecoms.

“There’s only two of me in the whole country,” she says. “Out of 80 track maintenance engineers, only two are women.

“It is good to see more women are coming through the industry, and promoting women in engineering is really important to me.

“The men I work with just treat me as one of the lads. They don’t act any differently with me, and I don’t want them to. I go to big meetings about electrification when I wear dresses, but I always have my orange hi-vis with me, tucked in the car in case of call outs.”

As part of her responsibilities, Helen holds the safety of the line in her hands. She is on call 24/7 for one week in five, come rain, snow or shine. Her last call out came at 4am one Sunday when a stolen tractor was driven into the side of a railway bridge, sending debris from the parapet down on the tracks and blocking the Bristol to Birmingham line.

It was Helen’s job to manage the clear up operation and the track didn’t reopen until 11am once she was absolutely sure it was safe.

That’s the key: safety is always paramount. “We have standards we work to that keep everybody safe, and these are set by Network Rail. No line is reopened until we are 100 per cent sure it is safe.

“We know the travelling public is our customer and that’s very important to us. Yes, we may occasionally come in for stick when there are delays because of maintenance, but people sometimes don’t understand the full picture.”

She added: “I love every bit of my job. I look forward to going to work because it is different every day. The pay is good, with a standard rate that includes the anti-social hours we work.

“Network Rail offers a really good career path. For women who have a family they offer job sharing or flexible working, because the company wants you to stay.”

Kacey Gommo, 24, started with Network Rail as a technical clerk and has progressed to her present role as a track access co-ordinator, planning work schedules that allow the correct movement of heavy machinery and maintenance crews many months in advance.

She has been encouraged by her employers to pursue her ambition to take a degree in railway engineering, and hopes to study in Sheffield. “Network Rail is made up of a great group of people, it’s like a family. I have never woken up and thought I don’t want to go to work today,” she said.

“The job is interesting and challenging. It can be stressful, but it brings with it a great deal of satisfaction. It’s like being a small piece in a big jigsaw in making the big picture happen.”

All three women are encouraged by Network Rail to go out to schools, to spread the word about engineering as a career, not just for women but men as well.

MD Mark Langman, who started with British Rail 30 years ago as an operations apprentice, says there has never been a better time to join the industry. Network Rail is mid-way through a £40bn five-year investment programme – the biggest investment in railways since the Victorian era. This is bringing in electrification to the nationwide infrastructure and, at the same time, opening up career opportunities for young people in all sorts of engineering technology, from civil engineering, track maintenance, signalling and telecoms.

“It’s really quite difficult to attract women into the industry and we are working really hard to address that. I think what you can see in Bristol today is some of the early successes that we are having, and I am really excited about that,” he said.

But how do you breakdown age-old perceptions and attract more women? “I think we need to make it absolutely clear that any activity that a man undertakes can be undertaken by a woman,” answered Mark. “We need to be more explicit about the things that we do and how we do it, how we are using technology to make a lot of those tasks much easier, whether you are a man or a woman.

“The other element of it, particularly for women, but equally for men, is making Network Rail much more family friendly, with flexibility in the hours we offer. We find that some of the activities we do require shift work and it works well for families because often they can be around during the day for their children and work at night.

“We are pushing really hard to attract women, but we’re not getting the numbers that we want. Certainly the numbers are going up, so anything more we can do to promote that and the positive careers you can have, and how far you can go in Network Rail, has to be a good thing.”

Network Rail’s three-year apprenticeship scheme is rated one of the best in the country, says Mark, offering engineering qualifications and a job at the end of the course.

In September, the trainees begin studying at a new state of the art training centre at Coventry, complete with pool, gym, restaurant and accommodation. On launch, there will be 200 apprenticeship places, which it is hoped will rise to 300 the following year. And it needs to, considering it receives 10,000 applications a year.

“Ten years ago, people thought the railways were finished,” said Mark. “Now it is boom time. We have electrification, new trains that make the ride smoother, new technology and new signalling that we are switching on this month in the Bristol track area, from Filton.

“What better time to start out on a career with Network Rail?”

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email info@vercida.com for more information.

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