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Rod's story

Rod Jewell, VolkerRail’s professional head of signalling, will be retiring this year after 20 years with the company, and almost 60 years in the industry. Here is his story.


Q) Can you sum up how it feels to be reaching 20 years at VolkerRail?

When I started in 2000, as the professional head of signalling (PHOS), I only expecting it to last a couple of years. It has been extremely satisfying to have held the position for so long (as a contractor) – I must have done something right!

When I started, there were less than 10 members of the signalling team and we had no project engineers, nor design or testing staff. To have been part of the team’s growth into a first-class division, with over 150 staff, has been very satisfying. The last 10 years have been the most enjoyable of my career, as the company grew and developed with the arrival of Steve Cocliff and Ken Robinson on our SMT, and with Barry Smith to steer the helm of our division, after Steve Sorby.

Q) Do you remember your first day?

This is off on a tangent, but I remember my first day on the railway. It was in 1963 and I was a junior draughtsman in the signalling drawing office in Derby. My manager asked me to stop whistling whilst in the office, and asked if I was going to get my haircut any time soon!

My first day for VolkerRail (back then GrantRail) felt odd, as the previous PHOS had departed several months earlier leaving a ‘black-hole’, and Scunthorpe, where VolkerRail’s head office was originally based, seemed a long way from Derby.

When I was offered the position, I was told it would be 1-2 days’ work per week; however, it wasn’t long before the acting signalling general manager (a very amusing character) and I were both sorting out Hyder Consulting in Bristol, who were failing to provide timely and quality designs for us. I was there for 12 weeks, working 5-6 days per week, and remember the managing director of Hyder turfing me out of the office at midnight, when trying to resolve the issues and complaining to our then managing director, who called me in and shook my hand for resolving matters!

Q) Talk me through your roles within the company and how VolkerRail has supported you through any changes?

My role has been consistent throughout the 20 years as the PHOS. Starting at Scunthorpe, then Doncaster Station, Lakeside-Carolina Court and now Eagre House.

I was given the opportunity to bring in some key people, and thank those who have supported the division’s development. I have also always been grateful to Barry Smith and Jack Pendle for supporting me in the role and, to be honest, it will be very hard to leave.

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

My first job as a junior draughtsman entailed producing drawings on blue linen as follows:

  • Sitting on a high stool at a large slanting desk (Dickensian style).
  • Pinning the roll of blue linen to the slanting desk with drawing pins.
  • Applying French chalk to the surface of the linen.
  • Drawing the railway lines with an ink line implement and an ink ruler.
  • Drawing signal aspects with an ink compass.
  • All annotations were drawn by hand.
  • Printing the final drawing on linen.
  • Mixing paint sticks in a palette and hand colouring the plan (yellow and blue on the Up Line and green and brown on the Down Line).
  • New work was coloured in red, and recoveries in green.
  • Any mistakes would require an electric eraser to rub out the error or go through the re-print process again!

Several years later, the introduction of computers and computer-aided design completely altered the old manual process into a streamlined modern process, at the touch of a button.

Q) In your opinion, how has the company changed since your first day to now?

The company has changed out of all recognition since I joined. In 2000, we were essentially a track laying company, with signalling support for disconnections/reconnections only. We had no in-house project engineers and bought in both design and testing services. Whereas now, in 2020, we have 18 project engineers, four design houses and a solid testing squad capable of delivering complex multidisciplinary projects.

The professionalism and expertise have also reached a new peak, and it keeps growing.

Q) What is the best thing about working for VolkerRail?

The signalling division is of course ‘special’, and we have a really strong and reliable team. I have to say, being the PHOS has not stopped me learning something different almost every week from the people I work with.

My role has always placed me in a strong position, and I have really enjoyed being VolkerRail’s signalling representative at several inquiries into incidents/mishaps. It’s rather like being a detective, and a barrister at the same time. Delving into all the events and identifying the underlying and root causes, while defending the company and employees, with a view to ensuring it will not happen again, is very enjoyable. I’ve also been able to travel all over the UK, with several interesting trips abroad to represent the company.

Q) What are your three proudest moments/milestones in your career?

  1. Changing direction in 1984 to move out of design and become a signal maintenance engineer, in charge of 200-300 staff at the ‘sharp-end’ of renewals and maintenance – the first person to make this transition. Then moving back ‘inside’ as the AS&TE, and subsequently holding down the post of my current role for 20 plus years – equating to a total service history of 56 years in signalling.
  2. Being the author of VolkerRail’s first history book: ‘80 years standing out from the crowd’. Tracing the company’s roots from the founding father in 1935, to our 80 year anniversary in 2016. This was a very tough and challenging project set by Steve Cocliff, but enjoyable too.
  3. To have been involved with the VolkerRail design team in developing an automatic design process for signalling location designs, effectively reducing design time from 2-3 weeks to 26 minutes. This innovation was an outstanding achievement and all credit to Rao Gurijala and team.