When Ruby Bhogal returned to work on August 30, she was greeted with a warmer reception than usual. She’d only had a day’s leave but, in the space of 36 hours, two of her big secrets were finally out. The first that she’s an amateur baker, the second being that she was a contestant on the new series of one of Britain’s most treasured TV programmes – The Great British Bake Off (GBBO).
Unknown to colleagues, the 30-year-old project manager had been heading to Berkshire every Friday night, where weekends of long 5am to 10pm days awaited her in the show’s famous white tent. In the week, Ruby would continue to juggle the demands of her job at Network Rail but every hour she could spare was spent perfecting the weird and wonderful challenges set by judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith.
If the pressures of leading a secret life weren’t enough, Ruby only shared details of it to three people at work: her boss Suresh Kavia, project manager Gerry Bona and Liam Farrell, a member of Network Rail’s communications team.
Thrust into the limelight
So, six weeks after the filming had finished, when the first episode of Series 9 was aired to almost 10 million viewers on August 28 and her secret was revealed to the world, Ruby purposely booked the next day off work to take it all in. Even then, she was still unprepared for the sheer size of the public’s reaction.
“I knew Bake Off was big, but I didn’t realise just how big,” said Ruby, who is originally from Ascot. “The minute your picture is released people go crazy. No details are released other than your name, age and the city you’re from but people will find you.
“I remember logging on to my computer at work and having emails from so many different people in the company. That was fantastic because it just showed how many people were so enthused about another person in the rail industry representing Network Rail and representing it in a good way and showing just what women can do in the construction industry.
“I’ve kept them all. I’ve got a folder in my inbox called ‘Bake Off’ and I’ve just stuck them all in there because they’re so nice, I could never delete any of them.”
Having disclosed her secret to so few people outside of her immediate family, countless lies were told, but all has been forgiven.
“No one trusts me anymore,” she said. “I told so many lies, it was awful. But everyone at work has been really made up and hugely encouraging. There were just very annoyed that I hadn’t brought in any bakes before that. And that’s all I ever get asked for now – just, where’s the cake? It’s not about me anymore.”
After making it through 10 weeks of signature, technical and showstopper challenges, from making Wagon Wheels to naan breads and Chelsea buns, Ruby narrowly missed out on the GBBO crown.
Nevertheless, exposure from the show has seen her profile boosted no end and new opportunities have opened up as a result. But it’s all a far cry from where she was in 2013, when she went to make her steps into the world of construction after graduating from Liverpool John Moores University with a masters in architecture – and hadn’t yet caught the bug for baking.
“Soon after my masters I was unfortunate because I was going into the construction world when there was a severe lack of jobs,” said Ruby, who sought to find work as a junior architect. “The competition for people who had just graduated and were looking for jobs was just ridiculous.
“Luckily, I think it might have been after about two months of unemployment, I put my CV on a lot of online recruiting agencies and I just got a phone call from an agency called Talascend. They asked me whether I’d be interested in going in for an interview as a project management assistant at Network Rail and, to be honest, I’d never thought about going into the rail industry, never thought it’d be something that’d interest me, but I just kind of thought – ‘Why not? I’ve got nothing else at the moment. So, let’s just give it a go and see what happens.’”
After impressing her would-be bosses during a meeting in Warrington, Ruby was offered the position in Network Rail’s Works Delivery unit, which specialised in electrification and plant and early works.
“The thing that I really loved about working up north – and why I stuck with rail – is because everyone I was working with was so passionate about the work they were doing,” said Ruby.
After three years’ working in Warrington, Manchester, Liverpool and Wigan, Ruby took half a year out to go travelling and then returned to London where she ended up back at square one.
“I’d been up north for about 10 years and started to develop a Scouse accent so my mum wasn’t very happy,” she joked. “I think it was a bit naïve of me thinking I could fall into a job straight away when I came back to London. It’s such a huge city with a vast amount of people, and incredible talent. I learnt the hard way. I was a tiny fish in a very, very big pool.”
Another spell of unemployment followed, this time for six months, which Ruby confessed to being “a hard pill to swallow”. However, it was here that she discovered a passion for baking.
“I had a bread book that my sister had bought me years ago. It said that it takes about five hours to make some bread so I thought ‘Well, how else can I waste my day?’
“I guess it was during that period of unemployment where it gave me – this is going to sound all very cheesy – I think it gave me a bit of reason to my day, a focus. It kept me sane. It was a real testing point for me, mentally, to keep myself on track and not get too down about the fact that I wasn’t getting a job and all my friends were working and moving forward in their lives.”
Crossrail and Thameslink
Ruby’s route back into rail appeared when Crossrail came calling, recruiting her for a role working with clients on the operations and maintenance side of the megaproject.
Shortly afterwards in July 2017, an opportunity arose with Network Rail in the delivery of the Thameslink project. She seized the chance and has been with Thameslink ever since, getting involved in a number of significant projects along the way.
After starting as a scheme project manager on the Canal Tunnels between the East Coast main line near Kings Cross station and the Thameslink route at St Pancras, she moved onto a project she looks back on with immense pride: platform level access at the core stations of Blackfriars, King’s Cross, City Thameslink and Farringdon.
“It was a project that I really wanted to work on because it’s all about providing easy access for everyone – especially for people with reduced mobility,” said Ruby, who completed her first Christmas works for Network Rail on the project in 2017.
“I’ve read a lot of stories where someone of reduced mobility has gone on a train, made the phone call and said ‘I’d like to get off at X stop’ and they haven’t got there in time to assist them with the boarding ramp, so then they’re stuck on the train.
“How that person must then be made to feel and how that changes their everyday – it’s something that we take for granted.
“It’s been fantastic to get their feedback and see how something as simple as having a hump on the platform to allow them to access the train without any assistance, how much that has changed their life. It gives them a sense of independence.”
After covering everything except the commercial side of the project – so that’s stakeholder engagement, dealing with contractors and overseeing the programming as part of the day-to-day delivery – the project is now almost complete, with only close out works remaining before completion in February.
Not that Ruby will be the one to take it over the line. A few months back she was moved onto another project on the Thameslink programme – the closeout of the civils work at London Bridge station. Working with contractors Balfour Beatty and Siemens, the aim is to have the work finished by the end of June.
Boxers, burnouts and breaking down barriers
Life has changed for Ruby following her stint on the GBBO, with a number of doors opening for opportunities outside of work with Network Rail.
Back in November, Ruby – who herself boxes – had a ‘dream day’ when she rubbed shoulders with heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua as well as chef Jamie Oliver during a corporate event for Land Rover in the capital.
She’s also been able to use her new platform to encourage more women to join the construction sector. In partnership with the Construction Industry Training Board, Ruby is working on material that details her time in construction to be shown to Year 9 pupils.
It’s only been three months since the GBBO finished but it’s been a busy few months for Ruby, who has plenty to think about when it comes to her next move.
“Christmas came at a good time, I was just so burned out in terms of trying to make everything work. So, I made sure I had a good break to come back a bit more refreshed.
“I’m actually looking to go part-time in the next few weeks, so it means I can manage my external commitments a bit better with work. That’s the view at the moment, just to make sure when I’m at Network Rail, they get the 100 per cent, as opposed to my mind being on cakes somewhere else.”
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