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Graduates in lockdown

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Trainees need to learn from their supervisors and managers, so how does that work during lockdown?

Network Rail has a well-respected graduate training programme, during which trainees visit, work with and learn from different departments and projects around the railway. Graham Coombs investigates how that can still happen while working from home.

It is obviously an understatement to say that the coronavirus pandemic has had an enormous effect on our working lives. Whether continuing to provide key services in difficult situations, working from home, being furloughed or even self-isolated, everyone has been affected.

But one group that has faced particular challenges is made up of those just starting on their railway career in Network Rail’s graduate schemes, who would normally be in the middle of an intense and tightly scheduled programme of activity. RailStaff asked them how they are keeping on track.

Operations and general management

Joanna Dobell (22) has been on Network Rail’s operations and general management programme since September last year, after graduating from Loughborough University. As part of the broad spread of experience provided by the programme, she has so far worked with safety, technical and engineering in the R&D team, and then out on location with the national stations team, a posting that was supposed to finish in early April. But unfortunately, those plans came to a halt when coronavirus hit.

Joanna takes up the story: “I am between placements at the moment – I should have moved to performance, but this has been put back to June at least. It was difficult adapting at first, but I am keeping busy with my apprenticeship coursework and have quickly become involved in several interesting projects. The Institute of Railway Operators is continuing to deliver the apprenticeship remotely and, thankfully, there’ll be no delay to the completion of my apprenticeship.

“I have been working with the R&D team on a thermal cameras trial, both at Network Rail’s Quadrant HQ and at Three Bridges ROC (rail operating centre), trying to mitigate some of the risks of coronavirus for critical workers. This was really interesting and very quick-paced, with the challenge to get a trial under way as quickly as possible, which we achieved during the first week in May. After a successful trial, the thermal cameras will now be rolled out nationally, helping keep our workers safe.

“I have also been involved with the transport task force with Charlene Wallace (Network Rail’s director for national passenger & customer experience), who had been tasked by chief executive Andrew Haines to gather together ideas from staff on how we can support the NHS and other key areas. I and another graduate have put all these ideas down in a database and we are creating weekly reports on them. This has been really good experience and has been a useful resource to the project team.

“In addition, I have been providing additional support to strategic crisis meetings and providing general assistance where I can. This gave me the opportunity to help assist the logistics support for the NHS Nightingale Hospital in Manchester.

Usman Ahmed.

“At first I was quite worried, as I was really looking forward to my performance placement, but actually I have been able to get involved in different things that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and it has given me a good insight into crisis management and working under pressure – it has probably been the busiest I have been.”

So, what does the future hold for Joanna? “I will be continuing to support the deployment of thermal cameras across Network Rail locations and the work with the transport taskforce, then in June I will be starting my performance placement on the Anglia route.

“The graduate programme is supposed to be for 12 months, but the scheme manager has been really supportive and will extend this, if needed, to ensure I complete the scheme.

“A key part of the programme is going out and learning from others, which clearly hasn’t been possible, so I would like to get more practical experience in before looking for a permanent position. The situation was quite daunting at first, but the people at Network Rail have been really supportive.”


Those on the engineering graduate scheme perhaps face a slightly different challenge, having to adapt to the new circumstances while work continues. To find out more, RailStaff talked with Usman Ahmed (24), who joined the graduate programme in September 2018 with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Birmingham.

He started his Network Rail programme with business familiarisation, visiting different teams such as asset management, site construction, track maintenance, timetable planning, security and asset protection. Following that was a placement on route asset management with the structures team, then working on the Aberdeen – Inverness improvement project.

“Since early this year I have been on a commercial placement with the team in Peterborough, working on the Werrington grade separation project,” Usman continued. “The aim is to get some commercial experience, with things like looking at how much suppliers are charging us, querying and challenging it where needed.

“Since Covid-19 hit, we’ve been doing a lot to support our supply chain as best we can, especially making sure the systems and payment processes are in place to support their cashflow.”

Like many ongoing projects, the works at Werrington are continuing, with appropriate safety measures on site. But staff like Usman, who don’t specifically need to be on site, were told to work from home.

Usman Ahmed.

“The change was quite sudden – one day we were told we might be going home and the next day that happened. Working from home was challenging at first as I was trying to figure out how to use all the digital tools that I needed. It has been a learning experience, but now everyone is in a routine and adapting to the situation.

“We are learning how to manage our own time better, how to focus and prioritise. Working from home has its own issues and maintaining the same level of performance can be quite challenging, but things like daily conference calls help replace face-to-face contact. We are utilising digital technology a lot more, and a lot better, and people who were not familiar with remote technologies are now more confident in using them.”

Usman appreciates that it has been challenging for suppliers too. “In general, the supply chain has coped fairly well, but there have been a few occasions where coronavirus disruption caused delayed deliveries or equipment shortages, so it has been interesting to learn how to adapt to changing circumstances.

“The key thing is that work on the project is ongoing and progressing well, even if it was at a reduced level of output for a while. It has been a useful experience seeing how the team is functioning during this pandemic, and quite uplifting to see how Network Rail and the wider rail community have adapted to the situation,” Usman concluded.

Usman’s next placement with an external design company has been deferred until the autumn, so, like Joanna, his first full appointment will also be delayed while he completes the programme.

Management view

Sonia Howard, Network Rail’s graduate and higher apprenticeship manager, gave her opinion on how graduate programmes have been affected. “I oversee the engineering and operations and general management schemes,” she told RailStaff.

Sonia Howard.

“We have approximately 80 graduates doing the engineering scheme and 50 on the operations and general management scheme at present. They have remained on placement but are predominantly working from home, with a handful still on site providing critical support to key route operations, including contingent signaller training.

“With regards to delivery of the scheme, we have been working with the professional bodies and our learning providers to ensure scheduled training continues to be delivered, but using different platforms, such as virtual classrooms. Where graduates have been unable to get the direct experience they need, we will ensure that placements are extended, or alternatives found, so that all graduates complete their scheme.”

Despite the pandemic, Sonia tells us it is full steam ahead for the future. “The 2020 graduate intake is going ahead, with increased numbers, and we are working on delivering the welcome days and induction materials remotely. It is very important to us that the graduate experience is not negatively impacted due to the coronavirus, so we will be using platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Yammer to ensure that they still feel connected and supported during their graduate journey.

“I think there may be greater use of distance learning in our schemes in the future. It has thrown up an opportunity for us to make more and better use of digital platforms. There will always be the requirement for face-to-face training and practical experience, but let’s be more innovative and, just because something has always been delivered in a certain way, does not mean this is the right way to continue. That’s true across all industries.”

Sonia concludes by summing up the importance of the programme in delivering the next generation of railway managers. “It is key to Network Rail and the wider rail industry to ensure we have a skilled workforce and we will continue to take a long-term view on training and development.

“It has been good to see how the industry has adapted and responded, and it highlights the importance of developing good leadership for times of change.”