Women Inspiring Rail: Q&A with Maria Price, Expert/First Officer at OTIF
For Global Railway Review’s next Women Inspiring Rail Q&A, Maria Price, Expert/First Officer in the Technical Interoperability Department at the Intergovernmental Organisation for International Carriage by Rail (OTIF) explains how her rail career began and how the industry can be equally exciting for men and women, if preconceptions and mind-sets continue to change.
How did your career in rail begin and what does your current job involve?
I am one of those fortunate people who did not find a career; the career found me! Getting into rail was a multistep process beginning with experiences early on at university.
My international law and diplomacy university studies in the United States helped me gain an internship in Washington, DC at the US-Bulgaria Trade Council. The Council promotes investments in Bulgaria and the Balkan region in general. Some initiatives focused on the rebuilding and reconstruction of transport infrastructure following the Bosnian War. I learned from that experience that transportation, and most importantly the railways, are like the arteries of a nation, or union of nations. Those arteries of transportation move people and cargo from place to place, but also that commerce helps a nation to grow and move forward.
Getting into rail was a multistep process beginning with experiences early on at university.
After completing my bachelor’s degree, I returned to Europe to continue pursuing a master’s degree and it was during that time I worked for a British company called The Leasing Group, later known as Centrica. This company focused on building and delivering commercial vehicle chasses from manufacturers in France, Germany and Italy. My specific job was to monitor and expedite the planning of the building, which allowed me to understand the whole process flow and transport logistics. I worked with administrators, engineers, maintenance experts and vehicle inspectors, providing an extremely valuable experience. Although it was a lot of extra time and work, it was something that made a major difference in my value in future positions in rail.
A few years later, I joined ViaDonau in Vienna, Austria. I was a young Project Manager working on the implementation of River Information Systems (RIS) along the Danube Corridor. My key responsibility was to develop a strategy to create incentives for Bulgaria to participate in the RIS projects funded by the EU Framework Programmes.
My focus on rail came during the years I worked on my doctorate degree. I wanted to increase my expertise on all modes of pan-European transportation. All modes of transport share common goals to promote international transport; they just have widely different approaches. While working on the degree, I chose to focus on the development of the high-speed TEN-T corridor on the Iberian Peninsula. I chose to approach my dissertation by examining the high-speed railway line in Spain, Portugal and southern France from the perspective of geography, economics, policy implementation and financing. This was a departure from the usual examination for use in a dissertation. It was a cross-cutting activity and rather ambitious. Little did I know that a railway transport corridor is a whole different domain of its own presenting a complex system of connectivity, accessibility and compatibility. Finishing my complex dissertation on railways got me hooked on staying in this field. I loved the challenge and the chance to solve what often appeared to be insoluble problems.
My focus on rail came during the years I worked on my doctorate degree. I wanted to increase my expertise on all modes of pan-European transportation.
Following five long years of hard work on my doctorate, it all paid off. I was quickly offered a post at the association for European Infrastructure Managers (EIM) in Brussels. I was responsible for 10 Working Groups on technical specifications for interoperability and represented EIM before the European Commission, also in working groups at the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA).
As railways are a system of infrastructure and vehicles, I joined the International Union of the Wagon Keepers (UIP) as Head of Policy and Public Affairs. There I set up priority policy dossiers and worked on growing the visibility of UIP. I continued the advocacy for rail policies, but with a twist. Unlike the infrastructure railway companies which are restricted within national borders, wagon keepers have a completely different business model. When they look at innovation, investments and return of investments, they think internationally because wagons can go within Europe and outside of Europe.
My current responsibility at OTIF is to promote and facilitate the implementation of the Convention concerning International Carriage by Rail (COTIF). This is an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to international rail transport which currently has 51 member states from Europe, Asia, Middle East and Africa. I am employed as a subject matter expert and my team is currently updating and revising the appendices to the convention that deal with the technical provisions on harmonisation and technical interoperability. I work closely with the European Commission and ERA with the view to establishing and maintaining equivalence between international and European Union legal provisions. I am also dealing with cross cutting activities between the Technologies, Legal and RID departments on issued related to digitalisation and dangerous goods.
What aspects of your job do you find the most challenging/rewarding, and why?
The most challenging – but also most rewarding – aspect of my job is crafting solutions which work for all parties involved. My work teams usually consist of engineers, lawyers, economists, investors and politicians who bring their perspectives and recommendations to the table. The goal is to create both long- and short-term solutions. As a good listener as well as an optimist, I have been able to contribute by sharing my expertise in international law and transport, while having the ability to mediate in multiple foreign languages.
My satisfaction comes from knowing that when all is done, an expert, a decision maker, or a client representative may say: “Yes, we now have a solution to our problem.”
When I explain that my competence is in international law and transport, the response I face is usually a disappointing tone: “Oh, so then you a generalist?”
We still have a long way to go to be able to recognise the potential of diversity in people’s skills and the way they can bring an added value to the sector. As an international industry, and if we want to promote international transport by rail, in addition to lawyers and engineers, we need people who can understand and interpret international law and soft law, and training that includes such topics as foreign languages, national and global politics, economics, health and environment, climate and meteorology, conflict resolutions, to name just a few.
What is it about the rail industry that you are most passionate about?
I have a very creative and varied job; there is always something new and fresh to examine or to learn from.
I rely heavily on recommendations from experts, which can sometimes be very technical and detailed. Although I never studied engineering, I was good in mathematics and I was always interested in how things work. Sitting in a room surrounded by experts on energy consumption, braking performance, equivalent iconicity, flange lubrication, trackside installations and telematic applications, force me to learn how to learn ‘on the go’ and that is something that feeds the passion I have about the rail industry.
With my language and communication skills, I can distil complex verbal or written communication into either political messages or policy strategies. I can morph the technical knowledge into a legal text which becomes international law, which is later implemented by the railway sector and different government authorities. Seeing the outcome of this work makes me happy and proud. I can also translate the complex descriptions and jargon to simple communication for the purpose of public relations, mass communications, video messages, flyers or presentations understood and appreciated by anyone.
But my work does not stop there; I promote initiatives or new legislations by participating at conferences, workshops and using different forms of media.
What has been your biggest achievement/proudest moment so far in your rail career?
My greatest achievement began during my secondary education. I wanted to be proficient in the languages I had learned and perhaps find a way to learn even more languages. Living in then communist Bulgaria offered good education, but little opportunities abroad. Studying English, my fourth language by then, offered me a way forward when I had a chance to finish high school in the United States. As a very young woman, those ‘sky is the limit’ goals seemed infinitely far away. I was not interested in what job I will get or how much money I would make, but more in achieving my dreams. All I could do was keep focusing on it and moving ahead. One of my dreams, seemingly unattainable at the time, was to study at Oxford University, but I knew the Transport Studies Unit accepted only one or two students per year. My chosen area of study, which combined international law, transportation and rail interoperability had a strong, real-life application, something which was recognised, and for this reason why I was chosen. What seemed so difficult and unattainable at the beginning is now seen as goals attained.
Transport and rail can be equally exciting for men and women if we change certain prejudices and mind-sets. We are already making small steps in the right direction.
An achievement and a proud moment in my rail career is to do with making a difference for our society. As a woman, I felt a personal responsibility and pride to be part of the development and the launching of the Women in Transport initiative – the EU platform for Change – which was led by European Commissioner, Violeta Bulc. Transport and rail can be equally exciting for men and women if we change certain prejudices and mind-sets. We are already making small steps in the right direction.
A proud moment in my rail career was working on a noise reduction initiative for the European Union. Noise reduction, along with other aspects of the environment, is a highly charged political issue, which came around with strong implications on costs for the railway sector. Reducing noise in the rail sector can be most difficult because of the many circumstances that contribute to railway noise. Emotions were mixed and each side considered itself right no matter what the other side thought. All sides agreed that it is important to keep noise emissions low, but the demand and timeline without a financial safety net was a challenge. The European Union held noise reduction as a major objective, but funding for it was scarce.
In 2012 I had an opportunity to volunteer and assist a noise expert with a training programme for helicopter pilots to reduce fly-by noise. This initiative ran in parallel with research and innovation activities carried out by Bell Textron Inc., an American Aerospace Manufacturer, all of which were supported at the government level for the United States. In Europe, we had to think differently and seek incentives for industry to invest in retrofitting rail freight wagons, one of the components of railway noise. This work was like doing an inventory of a wardrobe and trying to decide what to keep, what to repair and what to throw away.
My goal, and my task was to bring the varied shareholders on-board and explain how each can get involved in EU-funded projects. Simultaneously, I negotiated with the European Commission and the INEA Executive Agency to ensure that the description of the call can match the feasibilities of the companies to retrofit their wagons.
This hard work paid off as the sector received more CEF funding, the call was revised, and more companies could co-finance their retrofitting projects.
How has the rail industry evolved since you joined?
There is a greater understanding that in order to be competitive, we must work closely together. This type of co-operative work has not always been the way rail industries were managed. There are so many actors and stakeholders in the railway system that depend on each other, and together they are part of the bigger transport picture.
There are so many actors and stakeholders in the railway system that depend on each other, and together they are part of the bigger transport picture.
With the implementation of telematics applications, it became more obvious to many that exchange of information matters, and it brings an added value to the sector. One huge step forward has been learning how to connect available tools with available data and use an interface to extract that much needed data in useful ways. The railway sector has developed many registers for different purposes, and creating an interface allows for the right data to be queried by the relevant actors.
As I work in an international domain and deal with legislation and implementation, I see more opportunities for women to be involved, contributing their skills in law, languages, engineering, communications and economics. Transport, in general, is an interesting and dynamic business. I believe any qualified person could find a great career somewhere within it.
Who within the rail community has been an inspiration to you, and why?
The rail community is like a family – meeting frequently and for varied reasons. Whether at the beginning, the middle or later stage of a career, anyone can learn something new from the person sitting next to them. With 15 years’ experience in the rail industry, as a young professional I have opportunities to learn from the contributions of team members of all levels of experience.
When I joined the Intermodality and Logistics Unit of the European Commission as a Stagiaire in 2003, I had a great opportunity to work with the head of my unit, Stefan Tostmann, my supervisor Mark Major, and other colleagues including Astrid Schlewing, Helmut Morsi, and Georgios Pantoulis. This was at a time when we were developing the background for security in international transport, promoting intermodal projects such as the Marco Polo Programme, which was newly launched. At that time the first concepts for the TEN-tec tool were being developed. I felt fortunate to be fully engaged in these projects and to be part of such a team. Years later, I still get excited remembering those experiences. I was able to obtain data from the TEN-tec tool while working on my doctorate research and could also use GIS mapping.
While at Oxford University, I was mentored by Prof. John Preston and Prof. David Banister, two unique and brilliant men who pushed me to think outside the box. They treated me as an expert and had full confidence and trust in my work. I was a young mother, and this was never a factor for prejudice and I never felt judged in any way. Moreover, they were very patient and understanding, allowing me to manage my time between research and my baby.
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 always tell young people that regardless of their line of study, there are opportunities to have a role in the future of rail, including automation and robotics.
“Do you drive a train?” is a question I am frequently asked. There is still a preconceived notion that if someone works in the railway industry, they must wear a hard hat and steel-toe shoes or check tickets. To young people, rail is old fashioned and not very exciting. Secondly, the railway sector remains heavily regulated, and because of that, there is high demand for experts in the relevant public administrations. However, these administrations find it difficult to compete with the packages offered by private companies.
We cannot be oblivious of the fact that today’s generation wants more, and they want it now. They look for quick answers with a click or a swipe, and the train and its service must look like a gadget to them, a ‘must-have’. We call that ‘instant gratification’. Rail is already doing that. It is easy to purchase a ticket or ship a box and complete the transaction with your smartphone or computer. We must demonstrate that travelling by rail is cool, creating a social community – complete with Wi-Fi access!
For those who are considering a career in rail, I can assure them there is never a boring day!
I always tell young people that regardless of their line of study, there are opportunities to have a role in the future of rail, including automation and robotics. That means more skills are needed in coding, creating and using new technologies, collecting information and analysis. Such timeless skills will always be needed to help us improve processes, facilitate communication, predict behaviour and mange risks.
Involving young people as early as secondary school is essential, because this is when they start thinking what they want to do with their lives. Girls have every ability to do it as much as boys and their motto should be, whether completing university or a trade/professional training programme, my skills count.
For those who are considering a career in rail, I can assure them there is never a boring day! One day you are among engineers. Another day you are with CEOs or politicians or other decision-makers. The next day you may find yourself at a workshop or terminal watching how the fruits of your labour are becoming a reality. I would encourage them to seek out internships in a primary area of interest. Read to help broaden knowledge. Talk to people already involved in that area of interest.
Remember, new jobs are created as the technology improves. Most of the jobs one would see in the course of a new career, do not even exist today. Anyone can learn to expand skills, if willing to learn, move around and advance in the railway transportation sector. Anyone can obtain a ticket to ride to the future.
I call that a First-Class opportunity!
If you would like to take part in the Women Inspiring Rail series, or would like to nominate a colleague to part, please email: Eve De Clerk, Junior Editor, Global Railway Review.