Women Inspiring Rail: A Q&A with Catherine Baxter, Metro Trains Melbourne

Catherine Baxter, COO at Metro Trains Melbourne, discusses her passion for rail safety and her opinion on diversity in the workforce.

Women Inspiring Rail: A Q&A with Catherine Baxter, Metro Trains Melbourne

Catherine Baxter, COO at Metro Trains Melbourne, discusses her passion for rail safety and her opinion on diversity in the workforce.

This article originally appeared on Global Railway Review.

How did your career in rail begin and what does your current job involve?

I come from a proud railway family. My grandfather was a fireman in Queensland on the trains during World War II. My father followed in his footsteps and had a long career with Queensland Rail. I joined Queensland Rail in 1989. My brother and both of my uncles have also worked in the rail industry – so we’re definitely a railway family.

When it comes to the railway – it tends to get in your blood. I did leave rail for a period of time to work in concrete plants and quarries in North Queensland – but I eventually came back to rail, because you just cannot get away from it.

My current role is Chief Operating Officer (COO) with Metro Trains Melbourne. I am responsible for operating all aspects of the railway in Melbourne – that covers the trains, the tracks, the station employees, drivers, rolling stock and infrastructure maintenance. I oversee everything that contributes to the successful running of Melbourne’s railway.

What aspects of your job do you find the most challenging/rewarding, and why?

Having been Metro’s COO for less than two months, my focus is on key priorities and what is going to ‘change the dial’ on performance. Consequently, I have six priorities that we are going to work through to make sure that we deliver improvements for our passengers. These include:

- A focus on safety

- Meeting our performance targets

- Improving reliability

- Ensuring a seamless relationship between projects and delivering for our passengers

- New opportunities to collaborate with our regional transport partners

- Delivering an outstanding passenger experience

A railway needs to strive to improve and deliver a better service – and our passengers always have a choice. We need to provide them with a reliable service and make them look to us as their first choice.

It’s critically important that we run a service that is reliable for our passengers. When we don’t – the ramifications are felt across the city. When there is a disruption, no matter what nature, the rest of the transport system can’t keep up because rail is the lifeblood of Melbourne. It is about how we provide that service – be reliable – and ensure we deliver what our passengers expect and deserve.

What is it about the rail industry that you are most passionate about?

I am passionate about safety. It is such a critical factor. Railways generally have a high level of risk, so you have got to make sure safety is at the front of everyone’s mind, every day. When I think about safety, I want people to be thinking ‘what does this mean for my safety before I complete this task?’ And when I say this, I am not just talking about our employees – I am talking about our passengers as well. They also have significant implications for the safety of the travelling public in the way they conduct themselves – whether that is forcing open doors or running on escalators – those behaviours are putting themselves and others at risk.

I am also passionate about the state of rail in Melbourne. There is so much technological change coming that will directly benefit our passengers. We are getting 65 new high capacity trains, introducing new high capacity signalling, and working on other projects to really transform our network. It is going to be an exciting few years as we grow and develop Metro here in Melbourne.

What has been your biggest achievement/proudest moment so far in your rail career?

I have had a long career in rail, but the one thing I feel most proud of is the growth and upward movement of the many people I have mentored, women especially. In fact, a number of those women have been able to take on roles that are more senior. This is the accomplishment of which I am most proud – seeing those women grow, develop, and achieve their best.

Having diversity across the business just makes good business sense. There is so much research out there to demonstrate that organisations with a more diverse culture perform better operationally. So, it is good business – but beyond that, it is also the right thing to do. We, as a business, should be reflecting what we see in our passengers – which is diversity.

How has the rail industry evolved since you joined? What have been the biggest changes?

Here is a scary thing – when I first joined the railway they still had typing pools and telexes. Technological leaps aside, what is different and what is better is that we have this enormous drive for diversity in our organisations. People are not being stereotyped or pigeonholed.

When I first joined the railway, most women joined the typing pool. So, to actually witness that change and equality enter the workplace has been very refreshing.

The other thing that I have seen is a shift in the safety focus and how seriously we take safety and the implications of it. Put simply, we are hurting fewer people and that is at the centre of my working life. I believe everyone should go home in the same condition they come to work – and this extends to our passengers.

Who within the rail community has been an inspiration to you, and why?

I was fortunate to get the opportunity to work for an extraordinary manager back in the early 1990s – his name was Lindsay Cooper, General Manager of Rockhampton Railway Workshops. He was a real forward-thinker. He saw people for their capabilities – he was not interested in gender – he was interested in people being able to do the job, and he would give people an opportunity to grow and develop into a role. He was quite a pragmatic manager and taught me a lot about industrial relations as well. So, I still keep in touch with him from time to time all these years later. I aspire to emulate his best practice.

What can be done to diversify the workforce in the rail sector? What advice would you give to those thinking about pursuing a career in rail?

I think the biggest opportunity, but also the biggest challenge for us, is getting people to be aware of the types of roles that exist in the railway. If you are aware that this is a good career path, you are far more likely to put up your hand. I want women, in particular, to put their hand up and ‘have a go’. Women will often wait until they have about 80 or 90 per cent of the qualifications before they apply for a job. Men, on the other hand, will ‘have a crack’ when they have 50 or 60 per cent. We need women to be prepared to put their hands up – take a bit of risk – and have a go at some of these roles. That is how we will get more women into the railways. We have to do more to empower and inspire women to join the railway.

We have removed some of the impediments for women. Women can apply for, and be successful in, any and all roles in Metro. In the past, say 20 or 30 years ago, when manual handling was not as well advanced as it is today – it was more challenging because of some of the physical, heavy work. However, it is a very different story today. We do not expect people to lift 20-30 kilogrammes. We have manual handling tools for that.

I have got a warning to issue though – rail gets in your blood. Once you join the railway, it is very hard to get out, and you don’t want to. It is a tremendously fulfilling career.

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