WELCOME to IRJ’s Women in Rail Award 2024. Our now annual search for the brightest and best female leaders and managers goes from strength to strength. What follows over the next 12 pages are career profiles of 15 remarkable women working across the railway industry in all parts of the world.

Earlier this year, a European Rail Supply Industry Association (Unife) workshop held in Brussels on developing next-generation skills for our industry highlighted the increasingly challenging issue of recruiting new talent. More than ever before, rail is competing not just internally, but with other sectors, on attracting the finest minds, male and female, which will be required if rail is to achieve the transformational role that net zero and other societal changes are demanding of it.

But as the International Association of Public Transport’s (UITP) secretary general, Mr Mohamed Mezghani, points out (p38), although women account for the majority of public transport users, they account for just one-fifth of its workforce. Or, to put it another way, 80% of posts are held by men. And Mezghani candidly says part of the problem is that men often don’t realise the many barriers facing women. Simple actions, such as including female faces on recruitment material, can massively help stimulate interest and applications.

And, as speakers at the Unife workshop explained, despite the many potential hurdles, there is much to be positive about. An increasing focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects at high school level is increasing the number of girls considering entering what was for generations a male-only preserve. Attracting talent at an early age will be crucial for filling a new generation of mould-breaking roles.

The onus is now on our industry to respond by demonstrating that there are satisfying and substantial career paths that can match and even surpass those in other sectors, from accountancy to zoology.

What is clear from the many entries to this year’s IRJ Women in Rail Award is the sheer determination and ability to accomplish outstanding achievements, often in the face of adversity. While they have undoubtedly had support from male and female colleagues, what sets our winners apart is their self-belief that in turn empowers colleagues and industry partners alike.

Judging by the calibre of the Women in Rail entries, we expect to see more outstanding individuals when we present the third IRJ Young Rail Leaders Award in our December issue. Nominations will open in October.

In the meantime, we invite you to join us in celebrating a truly exceptional group of employees who we are proud to present as the winners of our Women in Rail Award 2024.

Nthabiseng Kubheka
CEO, Bombela Operating Company, South Africa
Years in the industry: 3

BOMBELA is the joint venture led by RATP Dev that operates and maintains the 80km Gautrain commuter network in South Africa, running from Johannesburg to OR Tambo International Airport and Pretoria. Nthabiseng Kubheka joined the company as CEO in January 2021, the latest stage in her 27-year career in energy and rail. She is responsible for a business with over 500 staff and 1800 contractors that is estimated to contribute Rand 1.7bn ($US 93.3m) a year to the national economy.

Nthabiseng Kubheka CEO, Bombela Operating Company, South Africa.

Nthabiseng’s nominator says she is a passionate champion for inclusion and diversity, and has introduced these values throughout Bombela. Her speciality is leading multidisciplinary teams, achieving success through her focus on high performance as well as staff development. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Nthabiseng’s commitment to the safety of her employees and customers ensured that all protocols to prevent infection were observed, and that Gautrain services continued to operate. She ensured that jobs were protected and that the mental wellbeing of employees was prioritised.

A strong advocate for increasing the number of women in rail, Kubheka is working to build the next generation of leaders within Bombela. She was born in the township of Soweto and is a shining example of what can be achieved by women who are given the opportunity to thrive. To demonstrate the opportunities that are available, Bombela invites female high school and university students to meet the women in leadership positions at the company.

That Nthabiseng has risen to CEO level in the South African rail industry, which has tended to be as male-dominated as its counterparts elsewhere, is a very big achievement, her nominator says. “Everyone in South Africa speaks fondly and proudly of Gautrain yet many are not aware that the captain of this ship is a woman,” adds Nthabiseng’s nominator. “I am super proud of her work; South Africa should be too and so should the world. She is a winner.”

Anastasia Austin
Assistant Vice-President, Sales and Marketing, Merchandise, CPKC, United States
Years in the industry: 16

CANADIAN Pacific Kansas City (CPKC), created following the $US 31bn merger of Canadian Pacific (CP) and Kansas City Southern (KCS) on April 14 2023, has only just recently celebrated its first birthday, but Anastasia Austin has already contributed to its success by playing an instrumental role in the integration of the two businesses. The team of 31 based in Canada, the United States and Mexico that she leads in her current role has delivered record growth of $US 200m year-on-year, and up 9% on 2022.

Anastasia’s rail industry experience began as a senior accounting manager for capital investment at KCS. She rose to the position of vice-president of revenue and yield management and was asked to undertake a critical role in building the combined business as Integration Management Office (IMO) champion on the KCS side, co-leading with her counterpart at CP on work to integrate the Sales & Marketing teams.

Anastasia Austin Assistant Vice-President, Sales and Marketing, Merchandise, CPKC, United States.

As the KCS shares acquired by CP were placed into a voting trust until the US Surface Transportation Board (STB) approved the merger, both railways were limited in the amount of preparation they could undertake. The first few months at CPKC were “incredibly intense,” the company says in its nomination, as the two commercial teams with their separate systems, processes and cultures were combined, bringing together nearly 200 employees responsible for over $US 10bn of revenue. Anastasia quickly solved the obstacles that are inevitable in a merger of this size, with her leadership and experience instrumental to the success of the integration process so far.

CPKC says that Austin stands apart from her peers due to her in-depth knowledge of both the revenue and expense side of the industry. She has combined this with technical, communications and analytical skills to tackle major change and deliver positive outcomes.

Anastasia is a champion for the industry, and for other women making their careers in rail and elsewhere. She is a mentor for the mentorship programme at the Henry W Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an active member of the Women’s Leadership Network at CPKC, where she has also been appointed to the Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Mariko Utsunomiya
General manager, Consulting Engineering Headquarters, Japan International Consultants for Transportation, Japan
Years in the industry: 30

SOMETHING of a trailblazer for women in Japan’s rail industry, Mariko Utsunomiya joined JR East in the 1990s and worked in operating roles such as train crew, dispatching and operations planning, at a time when other female colleagues were scarce. After the government relaxed regulations restricting the working hours of female employees, she supported junior female colleagues to follow in her footsteps.

Mariko has been nominated by the president of Japan International Consultants for Transportation (JIC), Mr Masahiko Nakai, who says that her outstanding contribution has been to support the opening of the first metro line in Indonesia, the initial 15.7km of the Jakarta MRT network which opened in March 2019.

Mariko Utsunomiya General manager, Consulting Engineering Headquarters, Japan International Consultants for Transportation, Japan.

Mariko was project manager for the Operation and Maintenance Consulting Service (OMCS) project and its second stage OMCS2, which together ran for over seven years until December 2023. The objective was to help operator MRT Jakarta (MRTJ) prepare for opening and then operate and maintain the line unassisted. Since opening, average train punctuality has been over 99.9% without any major incidents.

As project manager, Mariko demonstrated strong leadership by fostering enthusiasm and creativity among the team, while displaying considerable adaptability when deploying Japanese railway expertise to meet the client’s needs. This included sharing with MRTJ the lessons learned from 40 incidents and accidents in Japan and elsewhere, in order to prevent similar occurrences in Jakarta.

One particular challenge was to complete staff training and safety certification in time for the opening date which could not be postponed, despite construction work having overrun. By closely liaising with contractors and the construction management consultant, Mariko was able to ensure that this was successfully undertaken while construction work was not in progress.

During OMCS2, Utsunomiya supported Indonesia’s first female train drivers at MRTJ by introducing specialist training for those returning from maternity leave. Including engineering roles and senior management, women now make up 20% of the workforce at MRTJ, higher than is usual in Southeast Asia. As well as highlighting Mariko’s contribution to this, her nominator believes that recognising her achievement as a pioneer in the field of engineering consultancy and project management will encourage women in rail around the world.