Rail Industry Focus


The women behind the Northern Powerhouse

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 16

RTM’s Luana Salles talks to the women who are helping make the Northern Powerhouse a reality.

The newly coined ‘Northern Powerhouse’ has been all the rage of late – as a concept, a political venture and, admittedly, a necessity that should have been brought to the forefront years ago.

At the heart of its agenda is the desire to connect major northern cities, both in terms of their physical transport links and the working relationships between the professionals steering these improvements. 

At the top sits chancellor George Osborne and transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin MP, but other prominent figures stand out: Transport for the North’s (TfN’s) John Cridland and David Brown, Manchester’s Sir Richard Leese, West Yorkshire’s Cllr Keith Wakefield, Liverpool’s Cllr Liam Robinson, the North East’s Cllr Nick Forbes, North Yorkshire’s Cllr Chris Metcalfe and the Northern Powerhouse minister himself, James Wharton MP. 

At first glance, the figureheads steering the Northern Powerhouse seem to suggest that while the movement itself looks forward, its predominantly male governance is still anchored to the gender imbalance of the pre-war era. Of course, that wouldn’t be too far off from the rail industry as a whole, with just 16% of its staff being female (when considering engineering roles solely, the figure drops as low as 4%). 

But assuming the Northern Powerhouse is an impenetrable boys' club would be a mistake. Working in senior roles across operators and the wider supply chain – jobs often hidden to the travelling public – the women of the rail industry are slowly, but surely, helping put the north back on the map. 

USE London Midland edit

A changing workforce 

Take Julie Hurley, for example: Sheffield City Region’s director of transport, working particularly with TfN and Rail North. She has input and involvement in all of the local rail workstreams, some of which she directly participates in through project boards, groups and management meetings, while taking an oversight role in others. As part of her duty to Sheffield’s transport network – parts of which are still “very poorly served”, she laments – Hurley takes all the Northern Powerhouse information she hears back to her city-region to gain views that are later fed into TfN’s work. 

Like many others, Hurley thinks the gender inequalities in the industry, while still existent, are less prevalent than they were. “Certainly, compared to maybe 10 years ago, there are a lot more women involved in rail,” she said. “The teams are broadly balanced. You do occasionally go to meetings where it is predominantly male, but those are few and far between now. There’s been a big shift over the past five or six years.” 

Any remaining gaps could largely be a symptom of how things used to be, she said, with younger women coming through the industry now just mid-career: “I’m sure we’ll see over the next five or 10 years that those who want to aspire and take on senior roles will come through.” 

Relationships with teams – and their customers 

Agreeing with Hurley’s take, Kathryn O’Brien, customer service director for TransPennine Express (TPE), argues that those piloting the northern transport bodies now see people as just that – people, each with individual skillsets vital to the Powerhouse initiative and with all the resilience and proficiency to back them up. 

Kathryn O'BrienKathryn O'Brien

But she acknowledged that some rail environments can still be quite hostile, particularly for women coming in at junior levels across depots and control rooms. Yet, these are barriers operators are trying to break down. 

“If you’ve passed all the tests to come work in the business, you’re a pretty rounded person who has to have a bit of resilience and a ‘get up and go’ attitude. You’re going to deal with potentially difficult situations, certainly out on the frontline on trains, and you’ve got to think on your feet,” she said. “We want females to feel supported, so if there is something that isn’t quite right, we’ve got processes in place to manage it.” 

Beyond these processes – which include strict policies on bullying and harassment and flexible work packages – O’Brien also revealed the TPE has its own ‘women in rail’ group, where they get together to share information and support one another in their roles. 

As someone personally and professionally driven by customer services, however, O’Brien takes this determination to nurture strong working relationships everywhere she goes in her job. Having been in the position since June 2014, she has focused on putting TPE’s customers at the heart of the business, ensuring its strong operational focus doesn’t stamp out the importance of giving passengers a voice. And this, she says, is a fundamental aspect of driving forward northern innovations and connectivity. 

“People are fundamental to delivering that connected service. You can have the best product in the world – if the people don’t bring that to life, then customers aren’t going to want to choose to travel by train, whichever company it is,” O’Brien said. “We want to be a world-class deliverer of customer service, and we believe that’s imperative to bolster the Northern Powerhouse and put it on the map. It’s not going to be a success if you don’t have that feeling across your transport sector.” 

Joined-up working 

Karen HornbyKaren Hornby, a senior manager for Network Rail in the north, agrees. In her role – which spans a huge area and diversity of operations, from the West Coast Main Line to key commuter lines across the region – Hornby helps manage relationships with the company’s key stakeholders to ensure everyone is working together. This helps enable the best possible delivery for customers. “I am, along with my team, the point of contact into our business,” she explained. “This helps keep us joined up and avoids duplication, while ensuring we are driving initiatives forward.” 

Echoing the Powerhouse’s headline commitment, Hornby said effective collaboration is key to bringing northern cities together – but argued there is still room for improvement. “There are massive opportunities to do things better, but it is great to see local authorities supporting this across the north. Investment doesn’t start and stop in one location – the improvements are across the whole of the network, so it’s important we work together.” 

Working together should be, for Hornby, the basic foundation for the north’s expansive rail vision – regardless of gender. “I’ve worked in the rail industry for over 20 years: what does make a difference is the relationship, and developing those relationships with our stakeholders,” she continued. “It is about working together – none of us can do this on our own. I want to make sure everyone stays together in terms of ambition and focus for the delivery of this investment across the north.” 

Unprecedented collaboration 

Amanda White, head of rail at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), argues that she’s never seen cross-regional collaboration to this extent before. “Of course, our passengers don’t just travel within Greater Manchester. They make journeys that cross local authority boundaries, they travel with multiple operators, they use a range of facilities in different stations and they travel to and from the station, using other modes of transport,” she said. “It’s so important that services join up and we consider the big picture in transport planning.” 

Before joining the TfGM team, White helped shape the early work of HS2 Ltd as senior route engineer for the north west – but with the newfound level of teamwork nationwide, she is now closer than ever to her former London office. “On a pan-northern level, it means we are a key contributor in strategic transport planning in the north, working closely with our counterparts in northern transport authorities and at Network Rail and HS2 Ltd,” she said. 

“This work involves a new level of commitment and partnership working between TfN, the Department for Transport, Network Rail and HS2 Ltd, in a way that is without precedent in our industry. It’s exciting to be part of a team that will bring truly world-class rail infrastructure to Manchester and on to our neighbouring cities.” 

USE Amanda White HS2 no copyrightAmanda White

All-female counterparts 

As well as within her own team, White said her counterparts in other companies – including Network Rail, Northern Rail, TPE and TfN – are all women. “Granted, they aren’t all from an engineering background, but they are managing complex railway operations, projects and relationships every day, as I am,” she said. 

But she recognised the importance to of accepting they work in an industry that is still male dominated. “I’ve already seen this changing in my 12 years in the industry, but more work needs to be done to dispel the myths that women need to prove they are as capable as male colleagues,” White said. “You don’t need to shout louder or change who you are to be heard in a room of men. My approach has always been to believe in my capability, and to treat others in the way I expect to be treated – equally.” 

Northern Rail’s customer service director, Natalie Loughborough, said she also works hard to maintain relationships with all individual colleagues and stakeholders, irrespective of gender – although her counterparts at that level at other operators are also all currently female. 

A day in the life 

Loughborough, who has a background in senior roles at FirstGroup and TfGM, admitted that there is still a highly noticeable gender gap in the industry. Yet, like Hurley, she understands this may be a legacy rather than a permanently embedded imbalance. 

But the changing times can come as a shock to men, confronted with an assertive female colleague, Loughborough said. “I prefer to say things as they are and not beat around the bush. Many men in the rail industry still seem to find that a little difficult to cope with and take a while to get used to the straightforward nature. 

“I don’t see the same questions, glances and acceptance period [as] ‘male colleague to male colleague’, where directness is an expectation and not seen as anything different. But I don’t think this has set me back however; it just made me more determined.” 

And it would be near-impossible to carry out Loughborough’s demanding job if it hadn’t. The day before we spoke, she had kicked off an early morning at Apperley Bridge to celebrate the opening of the new station after several months of strategic planning – the result of her collaboration with other Northern Rail, West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Network Rail teams. 

From there, she headed to meet the Mid Cheshire Community Rail Partnership and councillors at Cuddington, one of the latest stations to go live on her company’s roll-out of real-time customer information screen technology. Heading back by rail, she arrived at Manchester Piccadilly for a few meetings nearby until four in the afternoon – after which she spent the rest of her evening, until eleven at night, alongside Northern Rail’s frontline operations teams in Manchester Victoria to engage with her customers first-hand. 

staff10 c. Northern RailNatalie Loughborough

Breaking the glass ceiling 

Also based in Manchester – arguably the heart of the Powerhouse – is Sarah Jensen, principal engineer in AECOM’s joint venture team with Mott MacDonald, part of the engineering management team of the Northern Hub Alliance. 

Jensen has been working on the Ordsall Chord and its associated works, set to provide a faster link between two of its major stations while alleviating an existing rail bottleneck and increasing service frequency. 

A normal day for her, as a result of the city’s booming industry, moves at a swift pace: split between attending interdisciplinary design co-ordination meetings, discussing technical problems with her teams and reviewing drawings and documents. 

But while working in-house is essential, Jensen acknowledged that the true extent of collaboration across the north will be measured by the success of the Northern Powerhouse collectively. And this, she argues, can only be brought about with a good mix of people on any team, regardless of gender – although, much like Loughborough, she believes women can often help balance perspectives by bringing a different dynamic to the table. 

Yet Loughborough added: “It doesn’t mean I am not keen to ensure that we continue to break the glass ceiling and I hope that I, and my female colleagues, are showing that it is possible.

“Organisations such as mine are certainly keen to have a more balanced top team, but encouraging females into a broader range of industries, including rail, has got to start earlier than once our school leavers are making options to take up employment.” 

Encouragement starts at school 

Encouraging women to join the rail industry shouldn’t be a difficult task in Amanda White’s eyes, given that one of its biggest selling points, for her, is the wide range of jobs and skills required to keep services running now and in future. “Industry representatives are too quickly stereotyped as middle-aged engineers, operations experts, drivers or enthusiasts,” the TfGM rail boss said. 

“The skills needed by the rail industry range from project managers to construction experts, customer service professionals to investors in people and business leaders. Already this sounds like a much more accessible and diverse environment for women to access a career.” 

Nearly all of the women RTM spoke to are directly involved in projects designed to inspire budding female rail enthusiasts. White works with the ‘Women in Rail’ initiative and CBI’s ‘First Women’ programme; Loughborough hopes to get involved with the Girls Out Loud ‘Big Sister’ project – which O’Brien is already part of, along with the ‘Inspiring the Future’ scheme – and Hornby is awaiting an opportunity to attend Women in Rail events, which her colleagues consider “incredibly rewarding”. 

Different, but the same 

While these women celebrate the fact that the rail industry is slowly ridding itself of its male-dominated ethos, all of them acknowledge that what makes an effective team is recognising the individual strengths of each member – gender stereotypes aside. 

But whatever their distinctive skills, they are held together by one collective aspiration: to lift the north so that it punches its weight in the UK and globally, developing a fully integrated, conveniently fast and highly ambitious network, with world-class rail, tram and freight links – even throwing some tram-trains in the mix. 

For White, the recent announcement of the new and devolved Northern Rail and TPE franchises are a step in the right direction of that, but watch this space: this is just the start for the women of the Northern Powerhouse.

Virgin Trains Staff

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Anita Wild   13/04/2016 at 09:05

What an excellent article - such a good insight into the work of Women in the Northern Powerhouse - which happens to be the title of a workshop we are running from the CMI WiM North West on 28th April in Manchester. If possible we would love to distribute this article to the 60 attendees. It will show another aspect of those moving the concept forward

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