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Talented people want to join a firm which prioritises rail

An interview with Chris Lawrence, head of rail systems


Chris Lawrence, head of rail systems, has over 30 years’ industry experience and is responsible for delivery of the firm’s rail systems capability to projects in the UK and overseas. We ask him what rail systems is all about … and what the future holds for Britain’s rail system.

What does rail systems mean?

Rail systems covers the operational infrastructure of the railway, rather than the buildings and heavy civil or structural engineering elements like tunnels and bridges that we’ve been traditionally known for. We now have a team of world class experts in infrastructure-related design and other services, from renewing assets like track and signalling systems to designing upgraded power supplies to meet growing demand.

What made you choose rail systems as a career?

It chose me! I was a highway engineer for the first five years of my career, when a chance opportunity to work on a light rail system job converted me. I ended up being responsible for all track design elements of that project and I’ve been hooked on rail ever since. I like the complexity of tying systems elements together so they work consistently. Rail projects are challenging, tightly constrained and safety conscious. Different types of rail projects have different rules. I love the variety. There’s also enormous gratification in finally seeing something you’ve designed built – though major rail projects can take decades to complete so you have to be patient!

What are your favourite aspects of the job?

I’m responsible for ensuring we’ve got the right people doing the right things to give clients the quality they deserve. The reward is seeing projects delivered well and on time. I also enjoy seeing people flourish and believe in giving them the space to take charge of what they’re responsible for and work hard to deliver it. My favourite aspect is also the most challenging part – making it happen!

How are our systems experts making life easier for commuters, rail companies and staff?

Improving our rail systems infrastructure ultimately benefits the passenger, which is everybody’s priority. We’re helping with increasing capacity and minimising delays with our design work for the Wessex Train Lengthening Programme, extending platforms at 50 different stations to allow for longer trains, which can carry more people. It’s not just a case of adding platform structures – the project involves changes to signalling, track, telecoms, electrification and more. Another example is the Willesden Depot Expansion – with the move toward longer trains, the facilities for stabling and maintaining them also need to be larger, so we are extending the existing depot. Customers benefit from longer trains and staff will benefit from the newly enhanced facility.

We’ve doubled our number of rail systems experts over the past year. How come?

We have a reputation with clients for doing things differently to longer-standing companies – we’re not hamstrung by an historical way of doing things, which makes us more agile, innovative and responsive. This attracts bright, exciting rail talent to the team. Opportunity in rail is enormous at the moment and people want to join a firm for which rail is a priority.

What’s your advice to someone considering a career in rail systems?

Do it! I sit on the employers group for the Technician Apprentice Consortium which is developing a new apprenticeship standard. I also sit on the Industrial Advisory Boards of two universities. Typically we find that most young professionals don’t really know what they want to do at that stage. Our advice is to keep the basis broad, spanning all disciplines to give an understanding of the breadth of industry, with companies like WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff providing the experience that allows them to decide what they enjoy most. Don’t specialise too early – wait until you’ve found your niche. I graduated in 1981. At that time there was little or no talk of making a career in rail – there was no glamour in it at all! But now High Speed 2 is the project most grads are talking about. There’s now a real opportunity for all of us to fundamentally change the UK’s rail infrastructure.

What trends do you think we’ll see in rail over the coming decades?

We are already designing things that will be built in 20 years’ time, such as High Speed 2, using tested technology. Looking further ahead, we’ll need to get more out of the network with smarter signalling systems allowing trains to run closer together. There’ll be an increasing focus on whole life asset management – increasing the efficiency of maintaining the network. Lastly, the passenger experience will have to get better. There’s huge demand for train travel, but passengers won’t tolerate standing in over-crowded conditions. Trains will need to be designed to suit the changing needs of passengers. I anticipate lots of technological improvements to make passenger experience better, such as personalised, configurable seating.

As an industry expert, what made you choose to join WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s rail team?

I was attracted by the unusual opportunity to help create a new business stream for a well-established, well-respected company doing something new and different. I was excited by the level of commitment the company has to growing rail systems, which has been absolutely borne out in practice. It was a rare, great opportunity for me to leave a positive mark.



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