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From defence to attack

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A year into the job of chief engineer Network Rail, Jane Simpson is enjoying it more than ever. This is apparent when we first met – not on a railway siding but at the Rail Staff Carol Service, organised by TBF in London. As rehearsal arias by the London Transport Choir soared aloft, Jane Simpson talked of the need to encourage more young people, particularly women, into the rail industry and agreed to get together in Milton Keynes.

Simpson’s job as chief engineer for Network Rail seems at variance with original career advice given to her at school in Coventry: try teaching or being a nursery nurse. Simpson, who works in the Quadrant Milton Keynes, is determined to make sure thousands of other school leavers do not make the mistake of acting on such foolhardy counsels.

Shortly after we met at Milton Keynes – the cathedral-like Quadrant is based on the site of the old Hockey Stadium – actor Kate Winslet spoke at a Hollywood awards fest. She said, ‘When I was younger, when I was 14, I was told by a drama teacher that I might do OK if I was happy to settle for the fat girl parts.’ Winslet went on, ‘So what I always feel in these moments is that any young woman who has ever been put down by a teacher, by a friend, by even a parent, just don’t listen to any of it, because that’s what I did – I kept on going and I overcame my fears and got over my insecurities.’


Sceptics may say that’s all very well in the world of the silver screen. Hollywood is full of rags to riches stories – the dramatisation of the American dream. However, the world of the the double-yellow screen (proceed with caution) provides even more conclusive evidence. A growing body of women in railways is making short work of old prejudices and power games. It’s a struggle, but Jane Simpson is determined to play her part in what is now a comprehensive movement shaping the future for railways – both socially and technically. No longer is the railway a muddle and mend affair. Visionary ideas being talked of, mapped out and costed are the very stuff of science fiction.

‘We set the vision,’ says Simpson. The chief engineer at Network Rail heads a department of 300 staff, subject masters and experts in electronics, computing, wheel-rail interface, tunnels, bridges, mining, signalling, buildings and delivery units. It is a wide remit made wider by the exigencies of expansion. The UK needs bigger and better railways. The political will is there – witness cross party backing for HS2. Less clear is how the rail industry is going to assemble the thousands needed to build and run the railways of the future. This does not faze erstwhile defence engineer, Jane Simpson. The best form of defence is attack.


‘The joy of my job is I am involved in so many different types of engineering. I love the technical vision that we set out – what railways will look like in 20 or 30 years time.’

If this idea of designing and building new railways can be conveyed to young people and be shown to be fun and rewarding, then the rail vision may just be brought into sharper focus.

Like Kate Winslet, no school leaver should be put off applying to the railway by a poor performance academically. Simpson makes a powerful argument for stepping off the academic treadmill and taking up an apprenticeship.

‘I left school at 16,’ Jane says, and adds she did not feel ready to go on to further education. ‘I had not done so well at school,’ she admits, being more interested in sports. Simpson is proof that many people are late developers.

If school proves a bit of a disaster, the message from the Quadrant is have another shot at it later on.


A process of applications for various jobs followed – carefully supervised by her father who made her fill out application forms in rough – on a photocopied form – and then do it again neatly. GEC offered her an apprenticeship as a defence engineer. ‘I’d always liked maths and physics,’ she says and her father urged her to capitalise on this. She did well on the four-year scheme gaining an ONC. Then she landed a big break. ’GEC sponsored me to do a degree at Coventry. I went on to do a degree,and I got a first and then did a masters.’

As many adult-onset undergraduates have found, student life was better for having worked in industry. ‘You can work a bit harder because you’re used to clocking in and out. I had a bit of cash because I was sponsored and I lived at home.

‘I enjoyed being a student.’ The degree was in electronics and communications engineering. She went on to read for a masters degree in electrical and electronics at Birmingham University. ‘People mature at different rates.’

Jane Simpson _NR chief engineer 300dpi


Simpson joined BR in 1996 and was based at Quayside Tower in Birmingham. She was one of the last BR graduates taken on. With privatisation, she moved to GTRM for a few years. ‘I was out there working shifts with them,’ she says, revering hands-on experience of running and building the railway, its depots and OLE systems. The railway was quite a change. Jane describes a world of Pirelli calendars and few ladies toilets. As she cheerfully reminisces about some depots with no ladies loo, ‘I’d position a lookout on the door.’

She joined Network Rail’s Infrastructure Maintenance department in 2009 and was promoted to director route asset management LNWR in 2011. She became technical services director in January 2014, directing engineering policy, standards, analysis and the R&D team. This was combined with a role overseeing organisational change, business critical rules and safety leadership.


Promoted to chief engineer for Network Rail in January 2015, Jane Simpson is crucially aware of the need to speed up innovation and the delivery of new technologies that will expand and sustain the railway of the next hundred years. The secret of her success has to be in part down to sheer enjoyment of the job. Simpson is a relaxed and engaging person to talk to. She speaks with a refreshing openness, with no sense of another agenda at work. Beefing up how the railway expands and sustains itself is the mainspring of the job.

Jane reels off new plans under development. ‘Mechatronics, new ways of moving trains, autonomous intelligence systems and little robots for intelligent inspection on track….’ Some of the research is funded by the European Union through Horizon 2020 – an EU initiative researching science, industrial leadership and solutions to social and economic problems – the transport section has a budget of almost €6 billion. Part of this funds Shift2Rail – Network Rail was a founder member. Shift2Rail aims to double the capacity of Europe’s rail systems, increase reliability and drive down costs and reduce carbon usage. ‘I was keen that we got involved,’ she says.


Simpson also enthuses about 3D printing. ‘We have lots of problems with obsolescence. Companies have gone out of business. How do we do it? Equipment can be over 40 years old. If you had 3D printing you could print something out on site.’

However, a part of her remit is to address the skill-gap concerns of rail chiefs up and down the country. How do we recruit the next generation? Research shows teenage girls turn off from the idea of engineering jobs by the time they reach 14. It’s equated with disagreeable men in boiler suits, cinder packed yards and grimy machines leaking sump oil. The role of the railway engineer is different now, says Jane.

‘I couldn’t tell you what an engineer looks like,’ Simpson told school students. ‘Our engineers wear hard hats and orange hi-vis to be safe when they are on track or on site, but they also wear business dress because they are designers, electronic specialists or project managers, where they are office-based.’ It’s a struggle to get this across. ‘We’re working hard to show both sides of the role to reflect this reality and promote the varied role of an engineer.’


The domestic picture of Jane Simpson reinforces her view that the future belongs to normal people – women as well as men. She has two children aged 12 and 14. Her husband, Bart, works in software development. ‘Work-life balance is important. You have to get over the guilt of not doing justice to either,’ she says.

‘I get home most nights. When they were younger, I’d get home to see them at bath time and bed time. Now I get in and they both shout ‘Hi’ and disappear,’ We swap anecdotes about the huge amounts of food teenagers consume. Simpson may be an electronic engineer but, ‘There’s no tech stuff at the table. We eat together at weekends. Although during the week, ‘I’ll get in and me and Bart cook and they appear saying: that smells quite nice.’

The family lives at Harbury in Warwickshire – of landslip fame.

‘It’s about a mile from our house,’ says Jane. The geology of the area is Jurassic Blue Lias – layers of limestone and shale and as such is unstable. Early railway pioneers wanted to build a tunnel through the area but decided not to. This really is a place where the earth moves under many a relationship.


The family goes cycling together and enjoys skiing and hiking. Jane is a regular at the gym. As well as snowboarding and skiing last October half-term, the Simpsons went on a cookery course at La Rochelle. The children learned to cook and make bread, pastry and quiche. Can men multi-skill? Those in Jane Simpson’s life have a better chance than most.

A lifelong member of the Scouts, Jane joined the Board of Trustees of the Scout Association last year. She was a Girl Guide and a Scout, gaining her Baden-Powell Award as a Guide and her Queens Scout Award as a Venture Scout. Jane set up a Rainbow unit and has been an adult helper in both Beavers and Cubs. Involvement with the Scouts and Guides gave valuable lessons in leadership.

‘Dyan Crowther suggested I be a trustee. Dyan saw it advertised and said, I thought of you…’ The two are firm friends and she cites Crowther as a major influence on her career. ‘So I applied and said ‘I am the most senior female engineer in Network Rail’. That drew them!’ Dyan Crowther is currently chief operating officer at Govia Thameslink Railway.


The Venture Scouts had a more enduring legacy. ‘One Venture Scout leader, she was only five years older than me but she was in her late teens, said to me ‘I want to be a director by the age of 40’.’ Simpson, from a working class family, had never thought of this. However, Victoria Dix was as good as her word and became managing director of Cohn & Wolfe in 2001. She’s based in Geneva, Switzerland and the two are still in touch.

DB-20150926-00373-0034 (Jane Simpson)

‘The only person stopping you is yourself,’ Jane believes. ‘Women have a tendency to want to be perfect therefore they don’t apply for roles.’ It’s true – a few railwaymen will always try and wing it at the interview – quite happy with the idea of being promoted one level above one’s competence. Self belief is important. ‘Lots of people stay in their comfort zone. People should constantly push themselves.’ ‘I try and read one or two good self-development books a year. I’m currently reading Heels of Steel by Vanessa Vallely.’ This is worth reading regardless of gender or stage of career development. Vallely went to work in the City aged 15 and rose to the top. Highly recommended.


Role models are a recurring theme. ‘I get my graduates out there visiting schools,’ Simpson says. Elsewhere she has paid tribute to those who encouraged her. ‘Role models are crucial to show girls and women what’s possible and where their potential can take them.

‘I was lucky to have a female role model who saw my potential and helped me realise it. Some quite senior men were astonished that I could talk confidently about complex engineering problems, but they soon came to see me for what I could do, not my gender.

‘As the most senior engineer in one of Britain’s biggest engineering companies I know I can help girls along a similar path and be part of something special.’

By 2018, over 3,000 teenage girls at five schools in Milton Keynes will have received advice on pursuing careers in railways. Work experience and open evenings at Network Rail training centres are designed to build confidence among potential applicants and show the railway is now the preserve of those who believe in ingenuity, purpose and doing something positive for the environment.

Ambassadors and role models are out in force, Jane Simpson at their forefront, advice and encouragement unstinting. Railway engineering is a great career for girls. She said recently, ‘It’s a fantastic career if you are creative…inquisitive, if you like to learn about what’s going on, if you want to know how things work, if you like being challenged – that’s what engineering is all about… I never do the same thing every day.’ That includes showing up to read the lesson at a Carol Service.

Simpson, Crowther and many more like them are comprehensively breaching the orange ceiling. Above all they demonstrate that a career in railways is fun, full of companionship and genuine fulfilment.