Creating a pathway to rail: Bombardier’s grassroots approach to diversity

Bombardier’s efforts in Australia to grow and maintain diversity within its workforce are at the core of what makes a successful rail business today.

In late September, a milestone was reached at Bombardier Transportation Australia. The date marked 12 months since the launch of the Women’s Professional Network (WPN), an internal empowerment group for the women employed at Bombardier’s sites around Australia. To mark the occasion, a photo taken earlier in 2020 was published on the manufacturer’s social media sites showing the Melbourne base WPN members, and a few male staff, standing in front of a newly built VLocity train set at the manufacturer’s Dandenong facility.

Demonstrating the commitment to diversity from the top down, standing at the front of the group were Victoria’s Minister for Women and Prevention of Family Violence, Gabrielle Williams, Australasian Railway Association (ARA) CEO Caroline Wilkie, ARA Chair Danny Broad, CEO of the St Kilda Gatehouse, Stacey Aslangul, and president of Bombardier Transportation Australia and New Zealand Wendy McMillan.

“Diversity has many faces but the WPN is a shining example of grass roots work that is being done in our business to help lift our female colleagues in their work with Bombardier Transportation,” McMillan said to acknowledge the project’s milestone.

The significance of having a leader like McMillan is not lost on Rahul Kumar, head of human resources Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia at Bombardier.

“It starts from the top. Most of the diversity and inclusion initiatives have to be top driven, so the leadership buy in is key for us and we’re very lucky to have Wendy as president.”

Kumar has been part of a core team that has been leading a push on diversity and inclusion at Bombardier in Australia. Avoiding large, complex projects that lose momentum and fail to be implemented, Kumar has focused on grassroots initiatives such as the WPN that can be sustained over a long period.

“If we’re going to be focussing on diversity, let’s bring women together. Most of the work is done outside of HR by testing and commissioning engineer Kamakshi Rambhatla. What started as just an effort of getting women together has now resulted in mentoring programs, we’ve had workshops being run by local speakers and we’ve had our local member for Dandenong and the Minister for Women, Minister for Prevention of Family Violence and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gabrielle Williams come and address them.”

In the 12 months since its launch the WPN has not only improved the careers of those involved and connected women from Bombardier’s sites across Australia but has inspired a movement of sorts with other WPNs being born in Southeast Asia and India. Today, over 20 mentoring groups run under the WPN banner, and an award and recognition program highlights those who have gone above and beyond.

“We now get 20-30 nominations consistently every month,” said Kumar. “At the start, we had to go and ask, ‘Do you want to nominate someone?’ Now it’s changing from a pull to a push system.”

While the program has driven engagement internally, Kumar is aware of the challenges of attracting not only women, but young people, and people from a variety of cultural backgrounds to the rail industry. However, this has not dissuaded Kumar from trying.

“Everyone keeps telling us we don’t have female graduates, we can’t find females in shop floor roles, we can’t find tradeswomen. It’s a reality too, and it’s not easy to find if you advertise, but we said, ‘Are we going to stop at this problem or are we going to find a way?’”

In addition to the traditional pathways into a manufacturing career such as apprenticeships and graduate programs that Bombardier offers, development plans were put in place to provide pathways for those who maybe not have been able to access the same training and education opportunities or who did not come from a traditional rail background.

One of these was TRANSIT. Set up by the Level Crossing Removal Authority (LXRA), the initiative highlights potential rail careers to those from other sectors that were in decline, in particular the automotive sector. Also, in collaboration with LXRA, Bombardier partnered on GROW, which seeks to introduce people from marginalised or disadvantaged backgrounds – including asylum seekers, refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – to training and employment opportunities in the transport and construction industries. A third program that Kumar invested in is the Overseas-Qualified Professionals program, run by Melbourne Polytechnic, which provides a pathway for those with international qualifications to have their training recognised in Australia.

“In a conventional world, individuals from these programs would have found it difficult to get through because they either didn’t have the skills, the background, or the education,” said Kumar. “We have broken those barriers; they prove themselves during internship programs and they considered against any open position in Bombardier.

“We focused on these unconventional ways of getting talent in and once they’re in, then we make sure that they have a buddy and a mentor to put them on the journey.” Most of our OQP employees are doing a fantastic job, said Kumar.

These approaches are leading to success at Bombardier, with the female workforce introduced to manufacturing roles working on the Dandenong shop floor, another first in Bombardier’s long history at the site. There are six women working in various roles currently, and recently, two more female electricians have been selected to join the manufacturing workforce. A similar very structured approach is being followed in our services site in West Melbourne, where we now have four female employees in shop floor roles.

“Now we are starting to see cycles building, so all those efforts now are seeing fruition after a two-year journey,” said Kumar.

MEASURING DIVERSITY
A now common element of corporate reporting is metrics which measure diversity. Often measured at the board level, these metrics can also be across a company as a whole. For Bombardier, the company globally tracks the number of women in management roles.

Beneath these headline figures, Kumar points out, is a focus on ensuring there is a pipeline of diverse expertise, and not only based on gender. In addition, diversity is not always captured in clear percentage figures.

“What we have done locally is look at how many women we have in succession plans to leadership because we always need to invest and ask if we have that pipeline of talent. Then we also look at diverse nationalities. This is a hard one to track in a place like Australia. For example, I myself came from India and I moved here in 2004. So, when I put my application down now what do I call myself, an Australian with an Indian background? I would not because I have got an Australian passport, I am Australian. We have done informal mapping, and in Dandenong itself we have over 30 different nationalities represented in some shape or form.”

Another focus is ensuring that the diversity is spread throughout the business, and not only in roles that are traditionally associated with a gender or cultural background.

“Sometimes there are good numbers on diversity but that 10 per cent or 20 per cent figure is skewed because a chunk of it is getting picked up by these traditional functions. In Australia, we are focusing on where we struggle, and that is in what we call conventional rail roles, and that’s building trains, maintaining them and also rail signalling,” said Kumar.

The final area that goes beyond a simple statistic is the retention rate. A diverse hiring policy is no use if the staff come and go through a revolving door, so Bombardier is looking closely at the reasons for a person leaving the organisation to see where it can do better.

“Most people will say I’m going to a new company for career progression but why could we not provide those avenues internally? We will track that to gather that information and then try and make some initiatives to bridge those gaps,” said Kumar.

THE VALUE OF A DIVERSE ORGANISATION
While academic research has proven that diverse organisations are more productive and profitable, as Kumar points out, for an organisation like Bombardier the value of inclusion is self-evident. With products and services operating in over 60 countries and approximately 36,000 employees, working across cultural boundaries is essential.

“Having a workforce that’s inclusive is the cornerstone of delivering projects, that’s how we survive.”

For example, the high capacity signalling system for the Metro Tunnel Project in Melbourne that Bombardier is delivering as part of the Rail Systems Alliance, brings together Australia and Thailand based teams along with other sites around the world. Similarly, the locally designed New Generation Rollingstock for the South East Queensland network are a collaboration between Bombardier teams in Australia and India.

“If we are not a diverse and inclusive organisation, we will start to see it in our delivery, in our products in the way they’re made and developed,” said Kumar.

In 2021, Bombardier will be doubling down on these efforts in Australia with the introduction of a hiring process that is blind to gender, sexuality, religion, marital status, and age, to remove any forms of unconscious bias.

“We are almost ready with a standard format,” said Kumar. “When CVs come in, they come in all fancy shapes and forms, some have got a vision statement, some have got objectives, so we’re going to remove that. We’re going to standardise our format. We’re going to say if someone is interested in Bombardier we want you to put your inputs into these broad categories and we don’t want your name, we don’t want your sexual orientation, religious beliefs, whether you’re married or not, your date of birth and also any reference to your gender.”

While such company-wide efforts are making a difference, as Kumar points out, there are stories every day that showcase why it is always important to keep a focus on diversity and inclusion within rail.

“In 2019, one of the graduates from the GROW community was telling me that he was the first in line from his whole family to ever get into a professional job. He had a double degree in engineering but was working part time as a home removalist. There was a graduate position coming up and I got a call from our LXRA contact saying you should have a look at this young engineering graduate. I said, ‘Not a problem, we will put him through the process.’ Now that guy is doing a fantastic job based in our West Melbourne site.”

VLocity

Redesigned VLocity trains win two Good Design Awards

Bombardier’s VLocity trains have won two design awards at the Australian Good Design Awards.

The locally-designed and built regional trains, which had a redesign in April 2020 as part of the order for new trains to run on Victoria’s standard gauge network, won the Gold Good Design Award and the Best Interior Design Award.

The Best Interior Design Award recognised improvements to safety and accessibility on the trains. A new front to the train improved crashworthiness and new accessibility and comfort measures inside the train cabin were designed for the needs of older travellers and those with disabilities.

Wendy McMillan, president Australia and New Zealand at Bombardier Transportation said that the awards are a result of collaboration.

“These two awards recognise the efforts and strong collaboration between Bombardier Transportation, Department of Transport, V/Line and the participating stakeholders, which led to the development of this user-friendly train design.”

Improvements to the driver’s cabin included a focus on safety.

The Interior Design Award also recognised innovations in the manufacture of the trains, which is being done locally, in Dandenong. Recycled materials are in use in the train and the use of advanced manufacturing and material technologies increase safety and efficiency while reducing cost and weight.

The Bombardier design team reflected that rollingstock design is a unique task.

“This award acknowledges the unique challenges our Industrial Design team face, balancing the vast demographic of user needs against the many constraints of rollingstock functionality in the public transport sector. Our interior design needs to meet legislative requirements, endure high frequency of use, satisfy public safety, and embrace inclusivity.”

The Good Design Awards are Australia’s peak design awards and have been running since 1958 making them one of the oldest and most prestigious international design awards in the world. This is not the first time that the VLocity trains have been recognised. In 2005, the trains’ original design won the Australian Design Award, the first train in the history of the competition to do so.

McMillan said the company and its passengers are proud of the recognition.

“We are very proud of the new VLocity train and the people of regional Victoria can now share in this pride too. I would also like to thank the Victorian Government for their ongoing support for Bombardier and our VLocity trains.”

The redesign included accessibility upgrades.

The road to 100

Bombardier’s Wendy McMillan describes how the company is creating a rail manufacturing centre of excellence as it reaches a major milestone.

Announcing the Victorian government’s purchase of 50 new trams for the Melbourne network in 2010, then Public Transport Minister Martin Pakula, highlighted what the first order of locally made trams in 20 years would mean for the state.

“The order is a boost to our tram fleet and is a fantastic endorsement of our local manufacturing industry with major components built at Dandenong as well as assembly and testing.”

Three years later, and a different public transport minister was riding the first of the E-Class trams as it left the Southbank depot and travelled on route 96.

“The E-Class tram will mean an improved ride for passengers with pivoting bogies and air-conditioning designed specifically for Melbourne,” said Terry Mulder, who noted the considerable difference the tram would make for the city and Melbourne’s commuters. “Each E-Class tram can carry 210 passengers, which is significantly more than other trams on the network.”

The company behind this series of trams, Bombardier, is now approaching production of the 100th E-Class vehicle, and the trams, proudly adorned with the ‘Made in Melbourne, For Melbourne’ motto, have become testament to the benefits of local manufacturing. Wendy McMillan, President Australia and New Zealand at Bombardier Transportation, said that by being made in Melbourne, the global mobility provider can “think global, act local”.

“It means you’ve got the full suite,” said McMillan. “We have the engineering capability to match what you actually bid, product assurance and design safety, and then you go into production.”

With the Dandenong workshop now completing vehicle 86 in the series, each tram is the result of Bombardier’s local and global expertise.

“If we look at the E-Class, you have industrial design in Brisbane, and we have at least a third of the global capability of industrial design in our Milton office. What it means is that you have a collaboration between functions, either here or overseas, full collaboration to actually bring the book together for the customer to enable sign off,” said McMillan.

In addition to the trams manufactured in Dandenong, Bombardier also produces the Vlocity 160 DMU for Victoria’s regional network. On both products, Bombardier has been able to update and vary the design locally in line with changes to requirements. Having local engineering capabilities is essential to these changes.

“There might be new standards that come in that the customer may wish to do a variation for,” said McMillan. “For example on LRV crashworthiness, it might be lines of sight, there might be driver requirements that change from the operator. Having engineering presence on the ground enables you to have that assurance.”

The first introduction of the E-Class trams saw improvements in accessibility for travellers by increasing the number of low floor trams running on the network. In addition, the enhanced capacity built into the design of the trams has become increasingly important.

“With COVID-19, larger capacity is a nice thing in hindsight because that allows more people on that tram, so that will give the highest capacity for the Yarra Trams fleet. That obviously means greater access and equity for the commuter and it also ensures that it’s the smoothest ride,” said McMillan.

Other improvements included positive feedback for safety standards in the driver’s cab, and Bombardier has worked with research institutions to look at other areas where design innovation can be introduced to respond to the particularities of Melbourne’s network.

“We’ve worked with a tertiary institution around visibility, line of sight, windscreens, and cameras outside the vehicle so that the driver is fully aware of their surroundings,” said McMillan. “The Melbourne network is not a closed network, it has a high interface with vehicles, whether they’re private drivers, Ubers, taxis, trucks, so we’re working with Yarra Trams and the Victorian government to plan a trial of an Obstacle Detection Assistance System (ODAS) that warns a driver about cars and passengers in front of the tram.”

In addition to upgrades, being local means that Bombardier are working on the trams every day, both in Dandenong and at maintenance depots.

“There was an incident today, an interface with a car or a truck on one of our trams. We hold spares for that. Our ability being on the ground means that we can work quickly, with Yarra Trams at their site in Preston, to repair those vehicles and have them back out. We can do that sourcing from both the Dandenong site and also with Yarra Trams,” said McMillan.

Photography by RailGallery.com.au

STRENGTHENING LOCAL MANUFACTURING
Bombardier’s presence in Dandenong continues over half a century of rail manufacturing heritage in south-east Melbourne. First opened by Commonwealth Engineering, then taken over by ABB, the current Bombardier plant is built in such a way to provide the best services for the Australian rail industry.

“Because the site itself has got access to the main line it’s very accessible both for V/ Line and Yarra Trams. We have an LRV test track there too and that gives us the ability to do a lot of work for the Victorian government and Yarra Trams on site,” said McMillan.

As McMillan highlights, it’s this collaborative relationship that has developed over the decades that has allowed Bombardier to serve the largest tram network in the world with local knowledge and production.

“We’re in production up to 91, well on the way up to 100 with the E-Class. That’s a big achievement and we can’t do that without our customer the Department of Transport and the State government, as well as a lot of hard work and dedication from our partners in the supply chain,” said McMillan. “We’ve worked to get the right quality supply chain partners, to get it right first time, minimise rework, while having capacity for repairs.”

Across Dandenong and the wider south- east Melbourne region, Bombardier has been key to the flourishing manufacturing ecosystem. The 11,000 manufacturers in south-east Melbourne employ 105,000 people, with each manufacturing job supporting four more jobs in other sectors, according to peak industry body South East Melbourne Manufacturing Alliance (SEMMA). Manufacturing large, complex systems such as rollingstock here enables a flow on effect across the entire region.

“Once we actually manufacture the design, we have an extraordinary, capable, local supply chain, and that’s around the Dandenong area in addition to Australia and New Zealand,” said McMillan. “Then there’s the multiplier impact, and obviously it’s in addition to the employment of those in the local community.”

The light rail operation alone employs more than 70 people directly, while enabling training through apprenticeships and partnerships with local education providers.

“Whether it’s safety training, welding, base manufacturing, or other skill sets, we have apprentices at the site and are close to Chisholm TAFE,” said McMillan. “Each quarter I give out service awards, and the incredible clusters around 5, 10, 15, 20, even 35 years, it blows you away.

“Another aspect is we’ve got a welding school that we offer to external training facilities, but you can’t do this unless you’re a good member of the community. We’re really trying to do not only the right things for the right reasons but really be proactive. We’ve done that in the bushfire appeal, we have an MoU that we’ve just signed with community development organisation St Kilda Gatehouse.”

Photography by RailGallery.com.au

BUILDING FROM A SUSTAINABLE BASE
Having these deep links to the community has become more important than ever. When COVID-19 hit, one unintended consequence of the local content requirement meant that there was minimal disruption to Bombardier’s manufacturing.

“We’ve been fortunate in our management and the local content policy assists in this regard in having suppliers around,” said McMillan. “Certainly, all supply chains were seriously disrupted and still are to an extent, but the actual impacts to us on these lines have been fairly minimal in a Victorian context. We were at one stage the only Bombardier Transportation site, apart from the China joint ventures, that were open in the world because of the unfortunate state of COVID and its impacts, particularly in Europe, the UK, and the Americas.”

While the disruptions of COVID-19 has an immediate impact on operations, McMillan also sees a role for rollingstock to play in enabling governments to respond. As governments look for ever greater value for money in transportation programs, changing the interaction between rollingstock and fixed infrastructure could provide a way forward.

“We’ve seen a request from clients to really stretch the rollingstock offer to match the associated network infrastructure. They look at expenditure and the interface in both. That might mean just your tram stops, how many of those need to go out, can rollingstock do something different about that? We’re very happy to look at the design possibilities in that regard as well,” said McMillan.

In addition, broader mobility trends will continue. As Melbourne looks to upgrade its network, innovations in light rail vehicles can overcome the limitations of a legacy network. Bombardier is involved in early design work for the next generation of trams, a defined benefit of which will be onboard energy storage to reduce the need for upgrades to the power network.

Another area for future development is integrating tram networks with the wider transportation system. Operating between heavy rail and active transport modes such as walking and cycling, McMillan sees an ongoing role for light rail in solving the ‘last mile’ of passenger movements.

“You have your last mile in logistics and you certainly have that in passenger movement. You’ve got the disruption of Uber and those operations as well in terms of how people still commute and get to nodes of heavy rail stations and meeting that with bike, so we are designing for bicycle capacity on our trains and trams.”

Increasing demand on Victoria’s regional network is leading to new thinking about the role of regional commuter trains, particularly to reduce emissions from diesel-powered units on unelectrified lines.

“In terms of regional-type commuter we can do a bi-mode diesel train, or a battery-electric train, and that can be introduced here. It could be utilised around the growth areas of the South East where we are but particularly to Ballarat and Geelong,” said McMillan.

Another area where Bombardier is involved in the next generation of transport networks is in delivering the signalling for the Melbourne Metro Tunnel project, as part of the Rail Systems Alliance (RSA). This is one area in particular where McMillian sees the local and the global coming together once again.

“Being basically in the same time-zone as Southeast Asia, and having very significant labs in Bangkok, assists with the RSA contract that’s on the ground here. You’ve got to be global for benefits and function shares. No one wants to reinvent the wheel and no customer wants that to happen on their program so that’s the benefit that we offer particularly in the services category.”

In the meantime, however, the day to day operations at Dandenong continue, with safety always the focus.

“At the Dandenong site we’ve achieved a safety record there and that is a result of every one of your staff, management down,” said McMillan.

Photography by RailGallery.com.au