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How did your career in rail begin and what does your current job involve?
I stumbled upon the rail industry, actually! When I was at university, my studies were predominately focused on women’s empowerment, particularly their financial participation in society. After graduation, I found a position in maritime transportation but, at the time, I struggled to see the linkages between my academic interests and transportation. However, I quickly realised that there was a parallel with my studies, as the sector impacts the daily experience of every single person in the EU; how we and the materials we need are moved affects how we live. That realisation motivated me to continue exploring the field until I found rail to be a growing, impactful mode to invest my focus.
I found rail to be a growing, impactful mode to invest my focus.”
As a technical affairs manager at UNIFE, I manage projects that are shaping future rail systems, as well as the cyber-security measures that will protect them. It is clear from my time in the industry that the EU is making strides formulating an ambitiously interconnected and interoperable railway network. In accordance with the implementation of the Fourth Railway Package, the transformation of the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) into a European rail system authority shows that Brussels and Member States are committed to reducing barriers to travel and improving mobility in Europe with rail transport as its backbone.
Shift2Rail was instrumental in fostering better research and innovation (R&I) cooperation between EU rail stakeholders. Some of the solutions they have come up with are in turn accelerating the transformation of the EU’s rail system and spurring on further innovation of its own. Digitalisation should continue to be a priority, as it will be key to increasing rail market share and at the heart of the potential successor of Shift2Rail, or Shift2Rail 2, within Horizon Europe. This passion for the digital age is huge, as it welcomes more and more start-ups to bring disruptive ideas and fresh energy to the industry! Promoting innovation and allowing it to be deployed without limit throughout the EU is going to be revolutionary.
What aspects of your job do you find the most challenging/rewarding, and why?
It is extremely rewarding to engage with bright individuals that truly believe that working in rail can solve many of the issues facing society.
Given my focus on R&I, every day gives me a front seat to the innovations of tomorrow. Our meetings and events have participants asking: “How will R&I redefine the rail industry?”; “Are there any other ways that we can have a smaller carbon footprint?”; “What can be done to make urban centres more accessible and less congested?”. After all the questions are posed and suggestions are shared, our job is to craft solutions to those problems. It is extremely rewarding to engage with bright individuals that truly believe that working in rail can solve many of the issues facing society.
What is challenging about that? It is not happening now! R&I, rightly and by its nature, is an incremental process – unfortunately, I get too excited.
What is it about the rail industry that you are most passionate about?
Rail brings people together and is key for developing economy at European, national, regional, and local levels. It brings us what we need. It is central to modern life in Europe! Working in rail puts me in a facilitator position for those trying to bring massive R&I breakthroughs to market in a way that we can all benefit from. If Shift2Rail 2 is pursued, the EU will look drastically different in the next decade. We would have more durable rails that are more reliable, capable of transporting greater capacities, and more punctual. Also, it would support the implementation of the Single European Rail Area.
Rail brings people together and is key for developing economy at European, national, regional, and local levels.
For me, working in rail R&I is a way to participate in the construction of a more connected Europe. Whether it is ERTMS, the Mobility as a Service (MaaS) concept, or cyber security protocols, these solutions are the tools that are going to allow Europeans to freely move safely around their union without a single barrier.
What has been your biggest achievement/proudest moment so far in your rail career?
Recently, the European Commission adopted the ‘Report of the expert group on competitiveness of the European rail supply industry’, an undertaking that UNIFE was heavily involved with. Discussing how to best bolster such an important European industry – it employs, directly and indirectly, approximately 400,000 people across the EU and generates €47 billion every year – with institution and private sector stakeholders was a highlight. Those figures may just seem like big numbers, but they have real significance to real people.
Women are always told growing up that a glass ceiling is there, and that eventually we will hit it. Politics, science, and business have traditionally been male-dominated fields, but here I was, at the crossroads of all three. By working at UNIFE, I was able to have a voice in such a huge conversation and helped to inform the working group of emerging trends and possible solutions that led them to create their 89 recommendations. If these concrete points are implemented, it will mobilise our industry as an effective partner in completing EU goals for decades to come.
How has the rail industry evolved since you joined? What have been the biggest changes?
Rail supply is fully embracing emerging digital solutions.”
I have not been in the rail supply industry long, but it is going to be changing very fast in the years to come. Despite its antiquated reputation, rail supply is fully embracing emerging digital solutions. Whether it is the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, improved telecommunications systems, or the introduction of big data, the sector understands that incorporating these technologies as soon as possible will revolutionise how their services are used. They will make rail more efficient, easier for passengers to use and seamless for people to conduct business across the EU, no matter where their end customer is.
While that gives me hope, it also reminds me that we still have a lot of work to do. Europe is a leading player in the global rail industry, its innovations improve the lives of millions around the world to the benefit of hundreds of thousands of Europeans. However, it can only continue to do so if it can remain competitive. Under Horizon2020, Shift2Rail was a huge step. It brought together the European Commission and experts with unique market perspectives to ideate on how R&I activities could be streamlined to keep European rail supply at the cutting edge. Improving the systems we create and how we create them will help us to remain a global railway leader.
I also think, with my cyber-security hat on, that being mindful of the impact integrating further digitalisation into our rail network is hugely important for quality and passenger satisfaction. It becomes even more essential when you think of the continued success of implementing ERTMS, both within Europe and abroad. That much interconnectivity and reliance on a single essential system necessitates continued efforts to maintain its security.
Who within the rail community has been an inspiration to you, and why?
Representation is massively important, as it shows other women that there is a path to leadership and that our voices can be heard.”
It has been very encouraging to see women like Violeta Bulc, European Commissioner for Transport, and Sabrina Soussan, CEO of Siemens Mobility and Chair of UNIFE, holding such high-profile positions within the community. Also, I am happy to see that there is continuation for the transport portfolio as Adina Ioana Valean, former Chairwoman of the European Parliament Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, has been designated as the new European Commissioner for Transport. Representation is massively important, as it shows other women that there is a path to leadership and that our voices can be heard.
Having had the opportunity to hear Commissioner Bulc speak at UNIFE events has led me to have a deeper understanding of the importance of rail to the European project. Being tasked with crafting the European Transport Union, it was fascinating to see how she saw the undertaking as people-centric. It has given me an even greater appreciation of my work at UNIFE.
Similarly, Ms. Soussan has been a very visible figure in the business world. In the EU, only nine per cent of CEOs are female, and she heads one of Europe’s largest, most innovative companies. Seeing her lead both Siemens Mobility and a ‘Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths’ (STEM) industry’s association gives me confidence that nothing can hold me back.
What can be done to diversify the workforce in the rail sector? What advice would you give to those thinking about pursuing a career in rail?
I would say “Do it!”, but I understand why they have not yet seen it as an option. For a long time, rail has been put in this corner of heavy industry, business and engineering. There is this old-fashioned, Andrew Carnegie-type reputation for the sector. However, rail is more essential now than ever. It has implications for sustainability, inclusivity, security, competition, economic inequality, urban planning – the list goes on and on. Just walking through InnoTrans 2018 made me think I was stepping into this sleek version of tomorrow with all these electric rail systems, suspension trams and high-tech digital applications. I was impressed by the innovations disclosed at the UNIFE and Shift2Rail booths. Now that policymakers are looking at potential policy in a much more holistic way, it is time to change public perception of our industry.
We need to prepare the next generation at a time when the industry is seeing much of its workforce approach retirement.
The Green Deal initiative that has been listed as a top priority by the von der Leyen mandate is a huge opportunity to welcome in a more diverse era for the rail sector. Creating a just energy transition is going to be a whole society effort, and we will need people from all walks of life to implement it. It can only work if we have voices from all communities fitting together different sustainable modes of transportation in a way that is more advantageous than the status quo. Since rail has been the only mode within the transport sector able to reduce its emissions in the past 20 years as it increases capacity, it will naturally be at the centre of these new mobility configurations.
The best place to start would be in academia. We need to prepare the next generation at a time when the industry is seeing much of its workforce approach retirement. A lot of students go to school with a general interest, but they come out lacking direction. Showing soon-to-be graduates that such an impactful sector is accessible and overlaps with their area of expertise would make entering rail an attractive option for many. By selecting rail supply and transport industries amongst the six sectors eligible for a European Blueprint on Skills under the Erasmus+ Programme, the Commission will definitely help mobilise suppliers, unions, schools, technical universities and regional governments to coordinate efforts to provide young people with the skills needed to get high-skilled and well-payed jobs in our sector.
If you would like to take part in the Women Inspiring Rail series, or would like to nominate a colleague to take part, please email: Leah Hockley, Junior Editor, Global Railway Review.
This article first appeared on www.globalrailwayreview.com
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