Helen Sutton: Finding new challenges, community in rail

Project manager Helen Sutton likes a challenge.

Over the course of an extensive career in rail spanning the UK and Australia, she has made it a habit to request the more complex projects that have crossed her path.

Now a senior project manager for Aurecon, it’s an approach that has seen her work on some of the country’s more significant rail projects.

Helen’s career in rail began after earning a qualification in manufacturing engineering in the early 2000s and finding limited opportunities to put her skills to use in the UK job market.

So, she began further study, enrolling in a Foundation Degree in Railway Engineering.

The two-year program was sponsored by a construction company and saw each year split between five months of work placement and seven months of university education.

“Having sampled a selection of rail engineering disciplines such as track, I chose to specialise in signalling for the second year,” she says.

“I worked on site on various signalling renewal projects, including Melton Mowbray semaphore signalling and points renewal, and Healey Mills resignalling.”

While the experience laid the foundations for her career, Helen says the lack of diversity in the industry at the time led her to look for other opportunities within the sector.

“I was regularly faced with … more senior staff in the UK who didn’t want a female to progress further in that specialisation,” she says.

It is something that I know a lot of female rail engineers faced not that long ago, but a lot has changed in that time.

Helen’s decision to change focus led to a career in rail project management, starting with a portfolio of smaller projects in the UK.

As she established herself in the field, the size of the projects she was charged with increased as she positioned for projects with greater complexity and levels of difficulty.

“Over time, this evolved from not only carrying out the project management roles, but also the commercial manager, resource manager, survey manager, acting signalling lead and design manager roles,” she says.

“My specialisation has taken a natural shift again over the past four years at Aurecon in Australia, where I am managing rail system projects, including signalling, overhead line equipment and utilities.”

Helen has worked in Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales since making the move to Australia.

She has worked on some of the country’s most well-known rail projects, from the Sydney Metro to the Inland Rail.

Helen believes the diversity of work in the rail industry is what makes it so appealing.

“Each and every day I have new challenges, which the team and I problem solve our way through collaboratively,” she says.

“That’s what makes it so interesting. There is a lot of innovation, and new problems to solve.

“For me, the rail industry is a friendly community, not just a job. You frequently bump into people you have previously worked with.”

And her words of advice to those just starting out in the industry?

It is possible to do anything you put your mind to.