A Career in Railways – really?
8 October 2020

A Career in Railways – really?

As part of RailWeek, I have been asked to provide some reflections on my journey into and through the rail sector, reflecting after 30 years involved with various forms of public transport, and having never (well – rarely) regretted a single day of it.

I went to an old-fashioned boys school – for most boys at the school, a career in railways meant being a train driver (and was something that their parents hoped they grow out of). I was a little luckier, as my Grandad had been a guard on the railway, so my parents were rather less fazed by my choice of career. In fact, that career has spanned both railways and buses (I worked for both Arriva and Go Ahead before I joined SYSTRA), and taken me to some places I never dreamed of.

It started with a fascination with how we get from A to B, and was reinforced by a growing appreciation that we needed to do so in an environmentally friendly manner, where public transport was really the only show in town once walking or cycling was discounted. So, although I didn’t run away from school at sixteen to learn to drive a train, instead heading off to University at eighteen like a good boy, I always had a good idea where my career might lie. I read Geography at university – railways and buses need a wide range of skills, and whilst some of them are obvious (engineering for example), pretty well every university discipline can make a contribution. Public transport needs good research and analytical skills, excellent communicators, and motivational managers every bit as much as bridge engineers, rolling stock designers or project management professionals. I got into conversation with two 18 year-old budding astrophysicists last year (on a train!) who bet me £10 I couldn’t show how their skills would be transferable to my industry – it was like taking candy from a baby, and they were amazed at how diverse our range of skills needs to be.

The rail sector is particularly diverse, and becoming more so by the month – the digital railway and advances in materials and technologies makes it a really dynamic environment, where the challenges come thick and fast, not just when involved in the operational side (where problems emerge every minute). Recent challenges associated with the pandemic and climate change and their impacts on railway operations were unforeseen when I joined the transport industry, but are now a core part of its activity.

The rail industry is high profile, especially when things go wrong, which makes it a rewarding place to work – and the range of people I’ve worked with throughout my career has been fantastic – there’s a real camaraderie within all the teams I’ve been part of. The future will be more of the same – an ever-widening range of necessary skills to make the railway a safe and successful operation, providing a reliable and vital service to millions of people around the country. And it’s not just in the UK – I’ve worked in Ireland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, India and Kazakhstan.

To round off, the advice I’d give to someone looking to get into rail is to forget the stereotypes and preconceptions and ask yourself one simple question: Do I want to join a sector where every day is different, every project is new, and every solution needs to be freshly baked. If you’re up for that – don’t hesitate.

Neill Birch,
Business Director

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