Role: Principal Engineer (Level Crossings)
Career Area: Engineering Design
My role at SYSTRA
I am a Principal Engineer and lead SYSTRA’s UK & Ireland Level Crossings team – my role is quite varied.
I can be doing anything from Project work (designing, checking or CRE duties); tendering for future works; forecasting future resource requirements; cascading business messages; ensuring team members have sufficient workload going forward; providing support to the team if needed; and undertaking Personal Development Reviews for my team.
I am also the Professional Head for Level Crossings, so I am responsible for my team’s competence and technical development.
My career journey
The truth is I knew nothing about the rail industry when I started my career in rail! I had just finished my University Degree in Industrial Product Design in 2000 and saw an advert for Graduates in a semi-local paper. I applied without knowing much about it, alongside a few applications for other jobs, and I received a response asking if I would be interested to interview for ‘Technician – Level Crossings’. I thought it would be good for experience, and following the interview I was offered the job. As it was my first ‘proper’ employment, and without knowing anything about rail or level crossings, I thought I would do it for a few years to get experience and then move on…
There’s been a few different companies along the way, but here I am over 20 years later having led the SYSTRA Level Crossings team since 2019!
We asked Michael…
When did you realise this was the career path for you?
From the first project I worked on – the Bedford to Bletchley Resignalling in 2001. The work involved site surveys, site visits, design work (standards and CAD based) and resolving construction queries to tight timescales to ensure the scheme was commissioned on time. It was a great learning opportunity. I have always enjoyed the design process, and each level crossing is in effect a mini multi-disciplinary project that needs integrating – not just with design disciplines, but also with the wider stakeholders such as councils or the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). Amazingly, no level crossing is ever the same so there are always new challenges.
Have you got any words of wisdom for someone starting out in a similar role?
Try to learn something from all the projects you’re involved with. No matter how small, there are always opportunities to learn. Always feel confident enough to ask questions, query decisions and make suggestions. And it’s not just projects – try to learn from people too. Before I took over the leadership of the SYSTRA Level Crossings team, I was lucky to have had a great manager to learn from. Try to take the good points but don’t be afraid to be yourself.
How does SYSTRA stand out from the rest as a Great Place to Work?
All organisations have had to evolve following the impact of the global pandemic, but what has impressed me about SYSTRA is the extent of our commitment to hybrid working and how this has been implemented. There is flexibility to adapt to the strains of family life – the school run can be accommodated if needed for example. The way the Board has reacted to the cost-of-living crisis in recent years is also appreciated. It also helps that I work in a team of great people, so logging on in the morning or coming into the office never feels like a chore.
With such power in diversity, what unique perspective do you bring to the table?
Now that’s a question… I like to think that I bring a reasoned, level-headed perspective to projects and/or management decisions. I like to weigh up each option or try to see the viewpoint from each side – obviously a decision needs to be made quickly in some situations so it’s an adaptive process!
Where is the place that has inspired you the most?
For me, it’s more the method of transport than a place itself that inspires me! I get a feeling of amazement every time I step on a plane. I know the theory and the science behind it, but the fact that metal tubes are flying through the sky in a safe way just amazes me! The design and manufacture of the plane itself is complicated – the team must work closely considering all aspects of use, with safety obviously being paramount. Then there is air traffic control, which is an example of how many countries around the world can work together.
What does true sustainability really mean to you?
I think more emphasis needs to be given to the true ‘cradle to grave’ analysis of products and transport. Where do the materials come from? How are they manufactured? What is the expected life cycle and how does this compare with regular manufacturing for replacement products? Renewable energy is a large part of it, but it’s still a growing industry that needs to be pushed forward, particularly in new house builds.
What would a green future look like?
A combination of solutions – there’s no silver bullet to solve our current problems. We can all do our bit on a personal level, but that can be dwarfed by the effects of industry on a global scale (both on an emissions and ethics basis). And of course, some countries pay more attention to legislation than others, so I believe it really needs a global approach.
How do you look after your wellbeing outside of work?
Family life tends to keep me busy, but I try to make time to look after myself too. I like to run and generally stay active, and I find that coaching my son’s rugby team helps to take my mind off work. As a Level Crossings team, we were recently lucky enough to attend a wellbeing afternoon at a local yoga retreat where we experienced the extensive benefits of yoga and a healthy lunch!
If you could spend your lunchbreak with someone you really admire, who would you choose?
From a non-work perspective, I would go for Leslie Nielson from Police Squad, Airplane and Naked Gun fame – mainly because I found him hilarious growing up! His deadpan delivery and comic timing were second to none.
If you had to pick, which mode of transport would you use for the rest of your life?
It would have to be the car – ideally electric for sustainability reasons, although the charging infrastructure needs to develop in line with demand… but maybe something more interesting for the weekends!