Sarah has over twelve years of experience in railway signalling and holds an IRSE Licence in the category of Signalling Designer, she has been with Kilborn Consulting Ltd since August 2020. Sarah’s main key experience is within mainline signalling design including production of scheme plans, location area plans, bonding plans, aspect sequence charts, cable schematics, cable plans and detailed design drawings. Sarah is a mentor for the Women’s Engineering Society MentorSet programme and a STEM Ambassador.


How did you get started in the industry?

I started in the rail industry by luck. I was at university and had opted to do a placement year in industry as part of my course. Getting a placement is a bit like lucky dip! You essentially get a list of companies who are looking for undergraduates for a year, send in your CV and just have to see what you get offered. Most of the time you don’t even know which department of the company is looking for placement students.

I ended up getting offered a placement in either Signalling design or wastewater management. I had no idea what Signalling design was, but I didn’t like the idea of working at a water treatment plant. I took the Signalling design position and quickly realised how varied and interesting the industry was. I got my Assistant Designer’s License before I completed my placement year, then returned to university to finish my degree with a post graduate job offer secured. It was a 50/50 decision, but 15 years on, it’s one I have never regretted.

When did you join the company and what is your role within Kilborn Consulting?

I joined Kilborn Consulting Ltd in August 2020. I’m a Senior Signalling Designer. My day-to-day work varies from doing scheme design and development and detailed design, to feasibility studies and acting as a signal sighting committee member.

In addition to my design role, I am our Mentoring Champion, mentoring a number of the junior staff and helping guide the company policies on mentoring.

How did you start at Kilborn Consulting?

I was made redundant in 2013. I interviewed for a number of companies and Kilborn Consulting Ltd was an interesting option, but just not quite the right fit at that time. By 2020 I wasn’t happy in my role at the time and started making some enquiries. I had kept an eye on Kilborn Consulting over the years and when I heard they were recruiting, I reached out.

Tell us about your career before you joined Kilborn Consulting.

I started out with May Gurney (now Kier), doing my placement year with them, then going back after I finished university. My work was very varied, and it was a great introduction to the rail industry.

In 2013 I got an unexpected offer to go and work for MGB Global, based in Thailand. I spent two months living and working in Bangkok, before returning to the UK. Most of the projects were based in Australia. Unfortunately, I was made redundant after just six months.

I went to Atkins, Croydon, for about a year and half, predominantly working with the Signal Sighting team. But the company, role and location weren’t a good fit for me.

I moved to Arup and joined their very small London based Signalling design team. I spent over five years with Arup. Alongside my Signalling design role, I developed a much better understanding of railway electrification design, splitting my time between the Signalling design team and with the Electrification and Plant design team. I was also involved with the Rail System, working on Reliability, Availability, Maintainability and Safety assessments.

What challenges have you faced in the industry?

I have faced many challenges during my career so far. Unfortunately, a lot of the challenges I have faced have been directly related to being a woman working in a very male dominated industry. I have been paid less compared to less qualified and less experienced male colleagues; I have been mistaken for the ‘boss’s assistant’ at client meetings when I was in fact the lead designer; I have had male colleagues assume I am a planner or project manager, rather than a designer. It is a frustrating situation, but one which I can already see is improving, thankfully.

Other challenges I have faced have been to do with different working cultures, both in terms of country and corporate attitudes.

I feel the hardest challenge I have faced so far was a lack of support once I achieved my Design License. Professional development does not stop just because you have reached a certain level, however, many of the mechanisms available to help develop, such as mentoring, are aimed at junior level staff. There often seems to be resistance to applying these same mechanisms to
helping more experienced staff to continue to develop. Workplace mentoring is one of the most effective ways to learn and develop so should be applied to all levels. I see all challenges as learning experiences, either for myself or others.

How can the industry tackle its skills shortage and how do you recruit/retain/ train your staff?

I believe the key to staff retention is for upper management to actually listen to their staff. Too often staff are treated like just another number, not individuals. The pastoral side of management or team leadership roles is pushed aside in favour of focusing on targets and workload, ignoring the wealth of data that shows that happy and supported employees work better and more effectively.

Training is not just about going on courses or meeting quantifiable metrics. The best place to learn is on the job, with the right support provided. Workplace mentoring is a vital, but often overlooked, part of training. It is the link between the theory learned on courses and the application in day-to-day activities. There needs to be recognition that training through mentoring and on-the-job training does not stop once you reach a certain level.

The industry needs to recognise that progress is not the same for the everyone and may not be linear. Too often companies have a career path template that doesn’t allow for the individual. Again, there is a wealth of data which shows that certain personality types and traits are more predisposed to particular roles such as design or management. Trying to push someone down a path that doesn’t suit them, just because it fits the company career path template, is a recipe for disaster.

How can we make the rail industry a place people want to work in?

I think the rail industry needs to better showcase the variety of roles available. They need to highlight what roles are involved in the planning and design of projects, not just the implementation and end result. It is easy for people to see the Civil engineering involved in a station build, for example, but people outside of the industry don’t see the work of all the other engineering disciplines, planners, commercial teams, public relations, advertising teams, and project managers involved.

What are your views on collaborative working?

Collaborative working is key to successful projects, but also to an efficient and productive work environment. Early and regular engagement with other disciplines and roles is essential to the success of a project. A project I was recently involved in managed this really well from a discipline collaboration perspective; the lead engineers from each discipline had regular meetings throughout the early design stage. Any changes or developments with the designs which might impact the other disciplines were discussed, along with any delays which might have a knock on effect.

The result was that there was minimal re-work required and we were able to make decisions on tricky design aspects which worked for all disciplines. The other aspect of collaborative working which often gets overlooked, in my experience, is that of the different roles involved in bringing a project into service. Early engagement with testers, maintenance and route managers is critical. Understanding exactly how an installation will be tested, brought into service, maintained, and managed can have a significant impact on how it is designed. The earlier this is understood on a project, the better.

Collaborative working should not just be focused on project delivery. Each person within a working team brings different experiences, perspectives, and insights. Exploring and learning from these differences can help bring new approaches to work.


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