Rail Britannia

Rail & Transit UK's Senior Management team, pictured from left: Matt Phillips, Andrew McDonald, Rabinder Kaur, Helen Collett, Andy Peat, Michael Grace and Jason Groombridge.

With the biggest investment in the UK’s rail system in a century, British railways are enjoying a new golden era. Viewpoint spoke to the UK Rail & Transit team about how it is seizing opportunities for an environmentally friendly transformation.

SNC-Lavalin’s office in Derby, in the UK, is a short walk from the city’s historic Roundhouse, the oldest engine-turning shed in the world, constructed by rail pioneer George Stephenson.

While Derby’s rich rail heritage – stretching back to the mid-19th century – isn’t lost on employees working in Rail & Transit Engineering, this team is firmly focused on the future of the sector and the role SNC-Lavalin is playing in modernising the network.

During the next few years, the UK government is investing more than £50bn in bringing an ageing rail system up to date, with the industry delivering major new infrastructure projects, rolling stock, and modern digital signalling and train control. Passenger journeys on the railways have grown rapidly in recent years, and that ridership is expected to double within the next 25 years.

SNC-Lavalin is already involved in several pivotal modernisation projects, including: the new High Speed Two (HS2) main line; Crossrail, spanning London from east to west; the Digital Railway programme; and the Four Lines Modernisation scheme for London Underground, one of the world’s biggest signalling contracts. It is also helping with the ‘Northern Hub’ rail infrastructure projects in the north of England. The government sees rail investment as a catalyst for economic growth.

Prestigious projects

The UK government is investing more than £50bn in bringing an ageing rail system up to date.

Michael Grace

Regional Director, Rail & Transit UK

It’s an exciting – if challenging – time to be working as one of the market leaders in the British rail industry.

Michael Grace, Regional Director for Rail & Transit in the UK, says: ‘These are prestigious projects, so we want to be involved. They provide opportunities for our staff to work on exciting schemes of various sizes. Our involvement shows we have the breadth, strength and depth of skills.’

He adds: ‘We have some of the world’s leading experts in control systems and rolling stock here. They are in demand, both inside and outside the UK.’

Other experienced teams include those specialising in rail infrastructure, system consulting and assurance, projects, rail operations and business development. 

High on the team’s agenda is growing the business sustainably by 30% within the next three years.

Managers of the 430-strong team, which is based across six offices – the main sites in Derby and London, plus offices in Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Birmingham – are strongly focused on keeping staff enthused. There are also more than 125 associates (‘contingent workers’) working alongside permanent members of staff.

‘Amazing things’

Matt Phillips, Rail Infrastructure Systems Director, says: ‘Staff engagement is our No 1 priority; if we get this right and delight our clients, then business performance is easier to deliver. If you have good people and harness their capabilities, to ensure they are enthused and driven, then you can do amazing things.’

The team runs a Great Place to Work initiative and monitors the survey results closely, looking at positive achievements and areas where improvements should be made.

‘We also have an “ideas factory”, which we use to develop innovative ideas for products and services,’ says Michael. ‘But we also use it to capture ideas to improve staff engagement.’

One popular way of doing this has proved to be low tech – weekly deliveries of fresh fruit – but the team is also embracing cutting-edge technology (see panel article on the Digital Railway). 

Long-term sustainability

Through the Digital Railway – and projects such as electrification and the use of energy metering on board trains – SNC-Lavalin is also helping to drive forward the railway’s green agenda. ‘People feel very positive to be involved,’ adds Michael. ‘We are enthusiastic about the environment and long-term sustainability, and see rail as a key aspect, as it is the most environmentally friendly mode of transport.’

As well as consulting and design engineering, SNC-Lavalin builds software products that support the desire to improve efficiency and reduce carbon generation.

Train drivers work according to their route knowledge, but new driver advisory systems are giving them information on their current position relative to the timetable. 

‘If they are ahead of time, they can slow down, which helps passenger comfort and reduces energy usage,’ adds Matt.

This work fits the government’s aims of reducing carbon generation, increasing capacity, driving down costs and improving the customer experience.

SNC-Lavalin also contributes to the wider industry as a member of the Rail Forum East Midlands and the Rail Industry Association. The former recently hosted Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport – an event that Michael was involved with.

Assisting abroad

While most of the team’s know-how is focused within Britain, staff have also worked with SNC-Lavalin colleagues abroad. For instance, their expertise has been deployed on the Eglinton Crosstown light rail transit scheme in Toronto, on Ottawa’s Confederation Line (see Viewpoint issue 2, December 2016), and in Vancouver, on the Evergreen Line.

Staff in the UK offices come from a variety of backgrounds and Matt is impressed by the calibre of graduates who have recently joined the company (see panel article). Employees have a love of rail in common. Michael observes: ‘Overall, the rail industry has a family feel. Once people are in it, they don’t tend to leave. The people we work with are good and there is now massive investment in rail.’

Matt feels the external perception of working in the rail industry has improved vastly and – after five years at SNC-Lavalin – he now couldn’t consider ‘ever doing anything else’.

Michael has the last word: ‘For the vast majority of people here, it is far more than a job. Their work is becoming far more high-tech as well.

‘This is a brilliant industry and I have the best job in it.’

At the forefront of technology

Team members are contributing to the government’s vision of delivering a cutting-edge railway in future. The response to the government’s Digital Railway initiative is being led by Doug Blanc at SNC-Lavalin. 

The Department for Transport (DfT) programme will use the latest traffic-management and passenger-information systems to deliver a smarter railway, where the capacity will be improved through the better use and management of data. 

SNC-Lavalin is one of those supporting the revolutionary programme, which aims to use digital technology to modernise systems to make rail work better for passengers and train operators. 

The DfT’s digital ambitions fit with its overall focus on the ‘four Cs’ for the railway – reducing carbon, increasing rail capacity, reducing cost and improving the customer experience.

Attracting and developing the best young talent

Since 1996, SNC-Lavalin (formerly Interfleet) has employed 130 university graduates and, impressively, more than 62% still work within the business.

‘Those that have moved on are working in some very senior positions in the rail industry,’ says Michael Grace. ‘We want to retain this as a great place to work, and having a strong graduate scheme helps with ongoing recruitment. This year, we intend to recruit more than 80 people, including higher apprentices.’

The graduate scheme has been accredited by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers since 2000 and by the Institution of Engineering and Technology since 2001.

Most graduates join the company in August to begin the programme, which consists of two years of training, followed by another two of professional development.

After induction, the new graduates volunteer for work at a heritage railway and participate in team-building exercises. 

They also undertake an eight-day Rail Systems programme, to integrate them into the industry, and then participate on placements with teams across SNC-Lavalin. They also spend time at external depots and maintenance facilities.

In 2016, the graduate scheme was shortlisted for Graduate Scheme of the Year at the Personnel Today Awards, an accolade open to companies across many industry sectors.

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