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Raising rail profile a major challenge

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Raising the profile of the rail industry is one of its biggest challenges, to enable communities to understand not only more about the sector but also the work it does to make railways safer, more efficient and more reliable.

The message was emphasised by MxV Rail president and chief executive officer Kari Gonzales, who made a keynote presentation at last week’s Heavy Haul Rail Conference in Perth.

MxV Rail is the world’s premier rail research advisory, based at Colorado in the USA. Since taking on the head role in 2021, Gonzales has spearheaded the company’s transformation to reflect its dedication to moving the rail industry forward.

“In any conversation about rail, every time I tell somebody that I work in the rail industry, I already see those visions of steam locomotives going through their head,” she told delegates.

“What many people don’t recognise is that there has been a significant amount of progress over the years.

“Especially as we’re starting to talk about decarbonisation efforts. Because it doesn’t only show people that we’re working and striving or being better, but that we are attracting talent to help us do some very high tech things.”

Part of this evolution has been the progression from a reactive state to a proactive state in rail operations, as in the fields of predictive maintenance.

“For example, the industry has done a lot on the detector front, to be able to help identify components that may be going bad, and being able to have better practices that are better aligned with operating states,” Gonzales said.

“So not only are you gaining benefit and reduction in derailments, but also from an operating perspective, you’re stopping trains when you want to stop them, not at the last moment when they need to be stopped.”

Gonzales herself is an example of someone who started off with little knowledge of rail to becoming a firm advocate for the industry.

“I was coaching little girls basketball and one of the dads mentioned an internship opportunity at a railroad research facility,” she said.

“I didn’t have a real job, so I decided to give it a shot. 20 years later, I still have a passion for making the rail industry safer, more reliable, and more efficient!”

Advancing from a student intern to a research engineer, Gonzales later assumed the role of Vice President and chief financial officer before now helming the company.

And when it comes to maintaining the profile of the rail industry, Gonzales said it was important to consider resilience in the workforce.

“I’m very enthusiastic about this industry and one of biggest challenges is in keeping the knowledge of our very long-standing employees, the 30-35 year veterans who love this industry,” she said.

“We do need to get people excited and wanting to bring new innovation … taking a diverse look at new people who can really different perspectives.

“And it is important for these engineers and the craft employees to be able to receive training and receive the education and opportunity for them to make careers out of railroading. That’s where the future begins in terms of workforce development.”

Gonzales called on the experienced professionals to impart their skills and experience to the “less-seasoned talent”.

“Please grab on to them.  Share your insight because it is really hard to see a 30-plus-year veteran walk out the door and take a lot of the knowledge with them that that hasn’t been given to anybody.

“When we think about resiliency in this railroading world, think about the workforce of the future.”

Indeed, training the younger generation was one of the pillars of MxV’s philosophy of transforming the industry.

“When we talk about transformation, we talk about taking the opportunities that are given to us, whether they be small fires or big fires,” she said.

“We need to make sure that we’re not just doing the same thing we’ve always done in response to the opportunities for change.

“It’s about thinking differently even at a very small scale that can lead to some very big changes over the course of time.

“I am sure everyone in this room recognises the need to look at how we train our people.

“Talent is very hard to come by. Rail is by and large not a glitzy, glamorous career.

“We need to figure out how to not only attract talent, but also retain them, and this really comes in the form of great training and better opportunities through career progression.”

The conference was organised by Informa Australia.