BakerHicks’ project manager Michele Swan on her unusual path into the industry, station renewals and a love of bridge reconstructions
In Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, the fruits of a rail renaissance are obvious. As well as being home to one of the country’s longest rail terminals at the DP World London Gateway, the town’s one-hour connections into central London have attracted a growing population of commuters.
In 1997/98, the station handled a total of 663,441 passengers. By 2017/18, that figure had soared to 1,109,214. Such is the size of that continued predicted growth that a multimillion-pound scheme to redevelop the station is underway.
“There’s a lot of development in the area and an increasing number of people working there too,” explained Michele Swan, project manager for the lead designer, BakerHicks. “So the station is being brought up to modern standards in line with the forecast passenger growth.”
An unconventional path
Much like the railway will for Stanford-le-Hope, Michele, an Aussie expat who fell into a career in rail, plays a key role in the future plans of BakerHicks’ rail division.
Her path into the industry began during the recession in 2010, when redundancy triggered the commerce graduate to leave her hometown of Perth, Western Australia, and move to London. Originally, she wanted to find employment in marketing and public relations – her major at Curtin University. However, during what was intended to be a temporary role, as an admin support worker on the London Blackfriars station redevelopment project, she developed a keen interest in engineering.
“It was such an exciting environment to be in,” said Michele, who was working for Balfour Beatty at the time. “A lot of intense pressure at times, trying to hit deadlines and also because of the sheer complexity of building a programme of work that big and hitting possession dates. That’s what made me change my professional direction.”
Almost a decade later she has no regrets.
“I didn’t think it was particularly glamorous at the start but it’s one of those things that becomes almost an embarrassing addiction,” she added.
Large-scale station development projects such as the one at Stanford-le-Hope, for which she was primarily recruited back in 2017, contain the level of engineering challenge that motivates Michele. With many elements and structures ranging from new station buildings to lifts and footbridges to account for, managing this process is a task she relishes. But there is one particular structure that Michele enjoys working with above all – bridges.
“I really love doing bridge reconstructions and bridge renewals. The scale of the projects and the complexity can be really interesting,” she explained.
“One of my favourite projects that I’ve worked on was the reconstruction of two bridges in Bournemouth. There was an 11-day possession over Christmas where both of the bridges were replaced and refurbished and it was really intensive planning for 18 months in the run up to the possession. I worked on site every day of the possession over Christmas, which being the middle of winter was quite dreary and soul destroying in some ways but in other ways it was very exciting and intense.
“I do have a real soft spot for bridges. Maybe it’s to do with starting off on Blackfriars on the bridge package there.”
Fire in her belly
Michele’s work on Stanford-le-Hope may not yet have finished but she already has one eye set firmly on future work with Network Rail and London Underground.
“CP6 is going to be really interesting,” she said. “We’re bidding for a lot of the frameworks that are out at the moment and I’m taking on a lead role in the bid management side. I’ve noticed that, in a lot of the tenders, there is a big focus on sustainability, which is important to focus on over the next few decades with climate change, flood resilience, all that kind of thing.”
Back in 2017, it was this same ambition that Michele saw in BakerHicks’ rail team that attracted her to the business. After spending five years sharpening her skills as a scheme project manager on Network Rail’s Wessex route, developing competencies in the development of bridge, station and p-way schemes, Michele was looking for a change.
“I wanted to go to the consultancy side of things, to get some more hands-on experience and expand my skillset,” said Michele. “With design – the development side of a rail project – that’s where you can really make the most difference in terms of delivery. Construction is quite thrilling and exciting but it’s the work that you do on the development side that can make all the difference.”
After spending time in India and Nepal volunteering with non-governmental organisations, Michele had a short spell at AECOM before she applied to join BakerHicks.
She added: “When I had my interview with the rail director James Howles, who was new to BakerHicks, he was very much about growing the sector. James wanted to really try to drum up business and I wanted to use my background in understanding what Network Rail wants to see if I could apply it on the other side to deliver a really good service.”
Being under the mentorship of James, as well as his colleague Iain Court, rail strategy director, Michele has benefited greatly, particularly surrounding their experience in business development, account management and strategy – and is excited at the possibilities ahead.
She said: “I’ve had a lot of line managers across the years but I definitely feel this is probably the first job I’ve ever had where there’s been a big focus on my own personal development and looking forward five or 10 years into the future.
“I’d like to move towards an account management-type role. If we are awarded CP6 frameworks, that’d be an interesting bank of work for the next five years.”
Read more: My Life in Rail – Caitlin Gent