Engineering is in my DNA. Both my grandfather and uncle were in the rail profession - two strong role models whose careers intrigued, inspired and, ultimately, prompted sixteen-year-old Stuart to join British Railways (BR).
My experience as a technician apprentice was very hands on; one of our first assignments was to transform a block of metal into a hammer! This style of learning obviously worked for me – following a terrific grounding in how railways operate, I was one of 20 in my cohort to earn a BR sponsored place to study mechanical engineering, I chose to attend the University of Plymouth, my hometown no less.
Adjusting to different cultures
In 2002, my international career kicked off when I joined the Kaohsiung Metro in Taiwan as a systems assurance and verification engineer.
Looking back, taking the time to learn Mandarin (our concessionaire was local), was an investment that paid off, enabling far more effective communication and collaboration between us. Of course, there were plenty of linguistic pitfalls to navigate, for example the literal translation for locomotive is fire car (a reference to the days of steam engines!); romantic, yes, but not very helpful as a rail engineer. Until I could understand the language I relied on interpreters, but I also learned to pay attention to people’s behaviours, their body language, and emotional appearance. As a result, I am more aware of the non-verbal cues I project myself, which I hope has made me a better communicator all round.
Making a difference
As an engineer, first and foremost I want to make a positive difference to as many people as possible. But the more ambitious the project, the greater the political will needed to get it done. This is probably why I have been attracted to roles on international projects, where there are plenty of iconic, mega projects to be found, such as the award-winning Doha Metro, where I was one of the deputy project directors. This best-in-class automated rail network was a key part of Qatar’s 2030 national integrated transport vision. As such, it benefitted from a clearly defined end-to-end process and unswerving support from policy makers, which, in turn, helped make it an innovative, high quality and efficiently run project.
There is nothing like experiencing as a passenger the rail project you have helped made happen as a part of the project team. Back to Taiwan and I can remember the excitement I felt when I got to ride the Kaohsiung Metro on my last day of the project, some seven years after I began. How many engineers are lucky enough to have this experience?
Rail: first choice, not last resort
Rail has significant potential to transform communities and improve lives. For example, nearly half of all global passenger journeys take place on Japan’s sophisticated rail network, and, as I have experienced for myself, its major cities frequently see far lower levels of road congestion than other equally densely populated places.
It was the Mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, who said: “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”. This makes it all the more gratifying to be supporting efforts to introduce a brand-new metro to Colombia’s capital city (WSP is delivering the detailed design and systems integration for Bogota Metro).
Closer to home, it would be great to see more of rail’s potential unlocked. The evidence is all around us; on a recent day out with my mum in Dartmoor, it seemed obvious to both of us that a great way to reconnect Tavistock with its local communities would be to reverse the closures Dr Beeching made some 60 years previously. How great it would be to lead delivery of a Devon Metro!
A once-in-a-generation opportunity… for the UK
I may no longer make rudimentary tools from raw materials, but my aim remains largely the same as it did when I was a technician apprentice: to help make things better.
There is no better opportunity to do just this - and raise the bar for design standards in the industry - than HS2. It represents a unique opportunity to boost capacity, cut carbon, connect people and communities, and leave a legacy for generations.
As “guiding mind” on major rail projects across the UK and overseas, getting stuck into this homegrown, transformative project means I get to play a small part in making a big difference. I like to think my family would be proud!