The rail industry needs highly skilled individuals to ensure its success

From Cross Rail to Midlands Mainline and Trans-Pennine, the government has many new and ambitious rail projects underway to provide Britain with a solid and reliable rail infrastructure. They are intended to support not only the needs of a growing customer base but the needs of the burgeoning Northern Powerhouse.

Secretary of State for Department of Transport Clare Perry recently stated: ‘we have five years to get it right’, acknowledging the failure of successive governments to properly invest in rail. With the industry worth £15 billion to the economy and investment set to continue for the next twenty years, it needs ambitious, enthusiastic and highly skilled individuals to ensure its success. Increasingly, the sector is recognising ex-military can contribute to this.

Chris Ackerman, who spent 18 years in the Royal Engineers, is now a project manager for Network Rail within infrastructure projects, such as Midland Rail. He says: “It’s startling to think that in 2010, in this industry, Britain ranked 33rd in the world behind Chile, Namibia and Tunisia but that really is all changing. It’s a great time to be involved.”

Main skills and experience needed:

  • Leadership and management
  • Project management
  • Logistics
  • Engineering

Chris says he relies predominantly on his leadership and management skills, from his time in the Services. They provide a guidance and way forward in difficult circumstances, when dealing with a variety of groups, from contractors to councils.

He says: “It’s not always the technical solutions that are most paramount – it’s the ability to synthesise various pieces of information together and reiterate them in a way that makes sense, then focus on how a goal can be achieved.”

Questioning the uncertain is an integral part of an officer’s role and this is a key component to dealing with complex situations that regularly arise in the rail industry. Clarity is critical when assessing the different options available and arriving at a final decision.

A potentially hazardous environment

In contrast to the military, the industry is not an exposed environment but it still has many present dangers. Sensible planning and safety are essential to avoiding hazardous situations or outcomes.

Therefore, it’s not surprising therefore that health and safety training and qualifications are highly sought after in the industry, along with experience in electrification and power, signalling and telecommunications. However, planning and project management skills are as equally important.

Chris says: “The military perspective on contingency planning is highly valued. People also appreciate the flexibility and speed in which ex-military individuals resolve problems.”

A complex set of stakeholders

From the government to engineering consultancies and suppliers, there is a complex set of stakeholders involved in making each rail project a reality. As a project commences, the government’s involvement diminishes and the bulk of the communication switches to suppliers and operating companies.”

As Chris acknowledges, these schemes aren’t always as popular as they could be so it’s imperative to ‘keep talking’ to councils and various different stakeholders. “With leadership comes the responsibility of engaging with the public, representing the organisation’s views clearly, in as unbiased a manner as possible, while taking on difficult challenges and questions.” He adds: “I particularly enjoy the variety and the different stages of the process. I think it’s important to bring people on board with your vision, as early as possible.”

Longevity of employment

Within rail, there is a viable career path from middle management and engineering, to senior project management. As many of these projects will be unfolding over the next decade the industry is exceptionally healthy with logistics and materials management remaining a key gap in most companies.

To work as a project engineer, degrees in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering are desirable assets, along with a chartered, incorporated status of a relevant professional body. However, these are negotiable.

As a former captain, it’s normally possible to enter the scheme project manager roles – the packages are comparable, with the opportunity to build on further skills and receive bespoke training courses. MScs may also be funded.

Listen to the webinar – Rail Infrastructure Job Opportunities