Rail needs stability to boost diversity

Nicola Shaw is right to call for a pan-industry approach to skills and diversity. Private sector investment will rely on a secure long term vision for UK rail, says Darren Reed.

Nicola Shaw’s recommendation to create an holistic, industry wide-approach to promoting diversity is particularly welcome.

Record demand for rail travel, political appetite for rail investment and a growing landscape of transformational rail projects are creating demand for niche skillsets. With a skills shortage adding huge individual value to a career in rail, now is a great time to be a rail engineer in the UK. We need to get that message out there to everyone, especially women. 

The facts speak for themselves: only 9% of the engineering workforce is female; and the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe. The lack of diversity, particularly gender diversity, clearly isn’t just a ‘rail’ issue, but affects all the ‘hard subjects’ of science, technology, engineering and mathematics where female representation is still low at just under 15%. 

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This entrenched problem begins in the classroom, which is precisely why companies like WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff have invested in school engagement programmes and apprenticeship schemes, and in creating our own internal working groups, composed primarily of the kind of diverse people we want to see more of in the industry, to identify and tackle these problems. Through supporting industry-led initiatives, such as the Young Rail Professionals, and celebrating the achievements of outstanding senior female contributors in our industry, we are helping to challenge out-of-date perceptions and promote the reality of rail as a thriving and dynamic place to work; one which welcomes and enables the rapid career progression of anyone with passion and ability.  

Beyond rail and the Shaw report, engineering in general has an image problem. For starters, it is not all about labouring in all-weathers on construction sites; it would be fair to say that many people in our business have never had to don hard hats and steel cap boots, whatever their gender. The reality is far more exciting; UK rail engineers are at the cutting edge of technologically advanced engineering.

There is no silver bullet; this challenge requires a joined up industry, government and educational approach. Shaw is right to highlight the need for the industry to work collectively to grow the pool of talent. The industry knows that investing in diversity is not a luxury. How else are we going to build the railway of the future? But any private sector investment in future talent requires confidence, which in turn requires a strong and certain vision for the longer term future of the UK railway. Building certainty into the future shape and financing of Network Rail and the impact this will have on the supply chain market that supports it will surely accelerate investment in a more diverse future.

Darren Reed is head of rail at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff.


It's not just about pre-18 educational routes. What about those who come from allied disciplines (eg. architecture, geology, planning, etc) who would like to make a mid-career change of direction, and who could provide an invaluable fresh perspective on our major infrastructure problems? There appears to be no conversion route that is feasible or affordable to all but a very fortunate few. It seems nonsensical that someone with 10+ years of relevant experience (including working on a daily basis with engineers) and qualifications is told the only route is the same as a 16 yr-old.