From apprentice to principal engineer

Camilla Rock talks to about her career at Network Rail, from apprenticeship to principal engineer.

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Camilla Rock joined Network Rail in 2005 as an apprentice. She didn’t want to waste time and money on a degree if she had no idea what she wanted to do and she knew an apprenticeship would give her the opportunity to find out about work on the job without having to pay anything back. She wanted to work for a large company and she enjoyed being outside and on her feet, having grown up in a rural setting on farm land. Network Rail seemed the perfect choice.

Fifteen years later she is a principal engineer at the company and has worked in different parts of the business, from track side to design to working on European train standard improvements, which involved attending high-level meetings on the continent.

Early years

Camilla spent her first year at Network Rail working at a military base on HMS Sultan, learning the basics of electrical engineering and signalling. She then spent two years at a local depot on block release doing the equivalent of a BTEC course while learning on the job as a signalling technician, going out every day in all weather.

She remained in maintenance and technical support, dealing with issues such as vandalism and fixing unexpected signal components which had failed. She remembers in particular testing a set of points that had failed and had to be rewired with trains going past her at 120 miles per hour during rush hour, kicking up snow.

Network Rail also sponsored her to do a part-time degree at Sheffield Hallam University. The organisation has links with several universities when it comes to staff development and Camilla had worked out that she needed a STEM degree in order to move into a more senior position. She studied over six years through a block release scheme.

Over those six years, Camilla changed job three times. She had been in technical support at the start, working as a team leader. It took a while to move out of track side work, but she wanted to gain wider experience of the business. She approached the design office in Birmingham about secondment opportunities. Within a month of approaching the Birmingham team she was working there and says she learnt a lot from the team about process management and attention to detail. However, she missed the outdoors. She says working as a less well paid junior in a more sedate office on regular shifts was a big change from working track side in a high-pressure environment and being in charge of a team. “When I had a bad day track side it could make the headlines,” she said. Even though she was allowed to go out onto the tracks with testing teams because of her previous experience, it was a very different job. “It was a little too much of a change for me,” she says, “but it was useful in the longer term and I learned a lot about myself and my skills. It was a very good transitional role for me.”

In 2014, she was offered a secondment to the Safety Technical and Engineering team by a former colleague who has acted as her unofficial mentor. Camilla started as an engineer in the standards team which creates the standards for those working line side. After a year and a half she moved to the Digitally Enabled Command Control and Signalling team as a senior engineer. They had been working on the requirements for the European Train Control System in the UK, the signalling and control component of the European Rail Traffic Management System. That job required her to travel regularly to high-level meetings in Europe as a Network Rail maintenance representative to share her knowledge and feed into the European Train Control System [ETCS]. The ETCS aims to create a level playing field, making it easier for trains to cross European borders smoothly.

New role

Camilla finished her engineering degree just after starting the role and remained in it until last September when she took up a post as principal engineer in the North West central region. The post is a new one and she has had to shape it and prove its value to the business. Camilla is focused on improving the running, resilience and reliability of the rail network. “The role is about supporting and implementing ways to improve the competence and capability of the network and give it more structure,” she says. “It is about making sure everyone has the right skills and about increasing communication between different disciplines. It’s important to get people talking. Having worked in Europe I am very aware of how important it is to communicate with people who are doing the same job as you. We need to learn from other regions and share good practice.”

Camilla is currently putting together a strategy paper. She says: “I have a vision and, having worked from the ground level up, I know what it is like track side and in different departments. I want to ensure that everyone is competent to carry out their roles safely, that they are happy and that we develop individuals’ talents.”

She admits that women are still a minority in the rail industry, which she says is reflective of the graduates coming out of maths and engineering courses. However, she says Network Rail has made “huge strides” in the years since she joined. At one point the team based in Brussels was all women, she says. “It is very clear that Network Rail is committed to Diversity and Inclusion across the board. They are very flexible, within what is possible. Men and women work flexibly and that also aids inclusion,” she states. She herself is able to manage her own time to a large extent. “As long as I get the work done no-one worries,” she says. “They treat you like an adult.”

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