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Meet Keith Jackson

Keith Jackson, principal signalling designer, is celebrating 40 years in the rail industry and five years with VolkerRail. We caught up with him to learn about his career.

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How does it feel to reach 40 years in the industry?

It feels like quite the achievement. It’s not something you plan, but it kind of happens, and for me, the past 40 years have gone by very quickly.

Why did you join the rail industry?

I did start a university degree, but realised this wasn’t the right career path for me. My father worked on the railway, and I kind of fell into the industry as a needs be at the time. I started at the bottom, and have worked my way up the career ladder.

Can you remember your first day?

I can! My first job was working for British Rail, as a railman within a dual-purpose signalling installation gang. My first six months consisted of de-commissioning signal boxes in West Yorkshire and York. I then spent many weeks at Crofton P-Way yard, near Wakefield, installing the new clamp-lock points for the East Coast Mainline diversion at Colton, Hambleton and Temple Hirst. My very first day on the job consisted of me sitting in a massive warehouse where we stored signalling equipment, as we’d missed the gangs going out to work.

Have you always worked within signalling?

Yes. With roles covering installation, maintenance, testing and design. I’ve stayed with signalling simply because I enjoy the work. I find it really interesting, and haven’t had the desire to move into another discipline. The skills you learn within signalling are also quite specific, so a lot of what you learn is not easily transferable into other disciplines – but a lot of people find they wouldn’t want too anyway!

What’s your favourite thing about working within signalling?

The diversity of work. Having the opportunity to work on mechanical signalling, right through to new computer based interlocking systems.

What training have you completed over the years?

I have completed many signalling courses over the last 40 years, these have consisted of holistic signalling courses, such as Advanced Signalling Technology (AST) and more equipment specific learning, such as Train Protection Warning System (TPWS) for designers.

I also hold two Institute of Railway Signalling Engineers (IRSE) licences, 1.1.550 – Signalling Principles Designer and 1.1.160 – Signalling Design Verifier, and I am an associated member of the IRSE.

How has the industry changed from your first job to now?

It’s hard to put into words, just how much the industry has changed over the years – and it’s all been for the better.

Safety wise, it’s so much more improved. When I first started in the rail industry, there were no PPE requirements, so we’d go out on track without high vis or boots. In fact, you could wear sandals if you wanted to! We didn’t have train lookouts, and you could wander around busy sites without this being a cause for concern. Nowadays, you couldn’t even imagine this, and thankfully, safety is put at the forefront of everything.

The culture surrounding work has also shifted massively. You used to go down to the pub and then head out to work, which is completely against the rules in todays’ working environment. Working conditions used to be unacceptable really. If you had to take a day off for illness - or any other reason - you wouldn’t get paid. This meant you had people attending work, when they shouldn’t or weren’t fit to, as they needed the money. It’s also sad to say, that when I first joined, those working on track didn’t get much respect from others. Track workers would get much less annual leave than those working in office functions, and you didn’t get any perks. It’s been great to see this level out over the years, and see people getting the respect that’s deserved.  

What changes have you seen within signalling in the industry, and what changes can you see happening in the years to come?

I think the one thing that answers both questions simultaneously, is technology. Technology has changed vastly, even in the last decade alone. Everything introduced within signalling is now all computer based, and before it was all mechanical. It’s progressing all the time, and in turn, getting safer all the time, which is great.

Going forward, as technology progresses, signalling no doubt will to. It’s a bit of a double edge sword, as it will influence the signalling infrastructure and workforce needed. As signalling becomes safer and more reliable, we might see less need for maintenance on the track, so there’s a carefully measure approach to take. That being said, you never know where technology is going to go next, and I’m sure we’ll see the need for the creation of new roles in the years to come.

Do you have any career highlights?

I have lots of career highlights, some of which are merged together, but there’s definitely a couple I can pick out. Firstly, the first time I was in charge of a faulting team at York station was a great experience.

Big projects are always great to work on. I was able to work on the Channel Tunnel, completing the signalling design of Dollands Moor depot near Ashford in Kent, and the testing of track circuits within the Channel tunnel.

You get so many career highlights in this role, as every time you get a project commissioned is an achievement in itself.

A none project based highlight, is getting to see people who started as apprentices move through their career into more senior and experienced positions. To be allowed to work within the signalling sector, an IRSE licence is required. I am an IRSE licence assessor, and enjoy helping designers gain their licences, which allows them to progress within the industry. 

Something else that has been great to see over the years, is seeing women joining the rail industry. I know there’s still a way to go with this, but the sector is so much more inclusive than it used to be.

What was your path to joining VolkerRail?

VolkerRail have a great reputation, and as such, I’d heard very good things about working for the business. Five years ago, I was recommended for a role, and after having an interview with Barry Smith, VolkerRail’s signalling general manager, I joined. Actually, a group of us joined the business from my previous company, so that speaks for itself.

Would you recommend a career in signalling to others?

Yes, most definitely. A signalling career is an excellent choice, and you shouldn’t hesitate if the option is open to you. I can guarantee you will have a very interesting career.

When it comes to signalling, we need to learn about a whole range of information. Those new to the industry still need to know about mechanical and digital signalling, as the old infrastructure is still out there, which needs replacing and upgrading. This shouldn’t put people off, as this is the knowledge that builds the foundations for a great career. And as I’ve said, the technology is always changing, so there will always be something new to learn about.

A career in the railway is also a career for life. I can say that the demand for rail upgrades and improvements has continued since I joined the industry. There’s always a need for work and I can only see this continuing.

Finally, what’s the best thing about working at VolkerRail?

The people and the culture. Both are excellent, and I can say it’s of the best companies I’ve worked for.