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News & opinion

11 MAR 2019

Inside track: surveying careers in the rail industry

Rail is a vast, fast-moving and – as the delays to London’s Crossrail illustrate – complex sector that’s crying out for the expertise surveyors bring. Five industry leaders reveal the inside track for a successful career on the railways.

Patience is a virtue – big change takes time

Bryony Goldsmith MRICS, head of programme management, Digital Railway, Arcadis

Just over 12 months since I moved from focusing on buildings into infrastructure programme delivery, I feel like a fully fledged and passionate member of the rail sector. This sector can feel a bit old-fashioned in its attitudes at times. As a woman and a relatively young professional in a senior position, it’s important to me to be a real role model. We are working on opening up this industry to more talent, and it’s exciting to see a younger, more diverse contingent now joining.

The Digital Railway programme is developing and supporting the industry-wide roll-out of digital signalling and train control. The boost in efficiency should lead to greater capacity for services and better performance, while improving safety for rail passengers and staff. Bringing about such a big change will take time, because it can only work with the track infrastructure it has, and it’s difficult to change the way things have been done for such a long time. It often feels unachievable, but we are starting to see positive change.

Resilience is key in this industry, along with a passion to succeed and some patience. Once you get past the technical jargon and start to understand the different acronyms, it’s an exciting place to be and it’s motivating to be part of the leadership team of a programme where you really are making a difference.

Train emerging from fog
Once past the technical jargon, rail is an exciting industry to work in

A range of skills is essential

Chris Preston FRICS, senior survey engineer, Network Rail

The UK’s rail industry has changed a great deal in terms of the technology it now employs, but some things remain the same. There’s still a lot of variety of careers on offer, and anyone wanting to go far in rail is still well advised to get as much varied experience as they can.

In comparison to some, I have stayed in one fairly specialist area throughout my career: collecting, analysing and managing data – or surveying by another name. After starting with British Rail, I then worked for a consultant, then for myself, and now I have a more strategic role with Network Rail, involving new technology such as laser scanning and LiDAR. I’ve become quite specialist in my career, but whichever part of the rail infrastructure industry you’re in, I still think to be successful you need a broad range of knowledge and experience, including maintenance elements. Design and build represents only a small proportion of the lifespan of a piece of infrastructure, and it has to be built in such a way that it can be safely maintained.

The rail industry is constantly under scrutiny as well. You have to be pretty thick-skinned to be prepared for putting up with the negative press and you need to be able to juggle changing priorities in what is a very dynamic industry, but it still feels like we’re working in a big family.

We are working on opening up this industry to more talent, and it’s exciting to see a younger, more diverse contingent now joining.

Bryony Goldsmith
Head of programme management, Digital Railway, Arcadis

Enthusiasm is a must

Jim McCluskey, senior commercial manager, Vinci Construction UK

A career in the rail industry can be whatever you make of it. There are so many ways into it. If you’ve got good commercial management skills, these can be applied to rail as much as any other sector. A degree in rail engineering is not necessary, but it’s important to understand how critical it is to be able to collaborate with different disciplines, and the consequences if handovers are delayed.

This is a very interesting industry. Rail as a sector includes all kinds of different elements of engineering and construction. I’ve been struck by some of the beautiful architecture that we’ve been restoring and the wonderful station projects that have been developing over recent years. The variety is incredible, no day is the same. Certainly an enthusiasm for this industry helps if you want to succeed. You have to keep yourself abreast of all developments in the contractual and commercial world, and you have to be proactive, broad-minded and pragmatic, with a thirst for learning new things. BIM and Digital Engineering have been real eye-openers for me, including how they were used to good effect on the Victoria Underground station upgrade.

The interactions, and stakeholders you encounter, make this a really interesting and challenging industry, and the rewards and sense of fulfillment are just as great.

Railway station
Rail is a fast-moving, high-profile industry

Helping to improve society demands drive

Josie Drath, practice manager for transport planning, SNC-Lavalin Atkins

It is not for the faint-hearted, working in the rail industry. As a mode of travel or sector of transportation, it gets a lot of criticism. Everyone has a view and it can be a challenge to respond to them all. But there are a lot of talented people in this industry that deserve trust in what they are doing.

To succeed in rail, a real drive and passion for the job is vital, with an understanding and a real interest in the industry. I always want to reach the best possible outcome for society. Bringing together a consideration of all the possible options with a focus on what’s best for communities and economies is what gives me a great deal of satisfaction. In the procurement process of “optioneering”, the ideal scenario is often one of integrated and sustainable transport that minimises our impact on the environment. That is not necessarily rail. It’s often very expensive, but for London, the line upgrades to create the Overground system certainly was the solution that worked best for all, including the public purse.

One of the fascinating things about rail in a transport planning context is that we’re getting much better at forecasting the capacity and economic benefits of rail projects. We are gathering more data and improving our experience and statistical evidence all the time.

We’re getting much better at forecasting the capacity and economic benefits of rail projects. We are gathering more data and improving our experience and statistical evidence all the time.

Josie Drath
Practice manager for transport planning, SNC-Lavalin Atkins

Complex projects need flexibility and collaboration

Rod Nathan FRICS, commercial manager, Crossrail

Having a successful career in the rail sector requires a certain amount of flexibility, because the work is usually part of a project that is constantly evolving. A willingness to work with change is needed and you have to be collaborative.

For about 16 years, I have worked as a commercial manager exclusively in rail and, mostly, on capital projects. These included the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line, the East London Line and, for the past six years, Crossrail. It helps to have a firm belief in what major rail investment projects are trying to achieve – but specifically with regard to commercial management – as these are among the most complex challenges around. They start off as civil engineering schemes, then evolve through phases of building and M&E (mechanical and electrical), before finishing as IT projects with signalling and other systems.

You have to be able to adapt and work with the changes, in what is often a challenging contractual environment. And you’re at an advantage if you understand contractors’ main aims. It’s very useful when negotiating if you understand what those at the coal face are going through, which also allows constructive relationships to be established. Large-scale rail projects need collaboration if they are to deliver best possible value.

This article originally appeared in The Cash Issue of Modus (March 2019).