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McConnell Dowell’s rail business thrives under female leadership

Harriet Christopherson, general manager – rail at McConnell Dowell. (Image: McConnell Dowell)

Under the leadership of Harriet Christopherson, McConnell Dowell’s national rail business is thriving, expanding and evolving to contribute to the construction and maintenance of the nation’s railway network.

With a portfolio of successfully delivered major rail projects and a growing presence in the national rail industry, McConnell Dowell is solidifying its reputation as a reliable partner in rail construction and maintenance.

McConnell Dowell has a history of delivering targeted rail projects since the early 2000’s, launching a dedicated rail business, predominantly focussed on the Victorian market, four years ago in response to evolving customer needs and industry demands.

Today, due to growth across all regions and markets, the company has transitioned from a single unit for its Australian business to a regionally based structure, appointing general managers in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia – with Harriet Christopherson at the helm of rail. However, the rail business remains national to ensure the specialist support in this sector is provided across all regions.

Christopherson has a wealth of experience in the rail construction sector. She began her career as a site engineer at McConnell Dowell, working on various infrastructure projects in her early engineering years. “I later joined Transfield Services, where I contributed to the company’s maintenance alliance with ARTC, responsible for railway line maintenance spanning from the South Australia-Victoria border to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and extending into New South Wales,” she says.

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McConnell Dowell’s national rail business’s expertise extends to a wide range of projects, including the construction of new stations. (Image: McConnell Dowell)
McConnell Dowell’s national rail business’s expertise extends to a wide range of projects, including the construction of new stations. (Image: McConnell Dowell)

In 2016, Christopherson returned to McConnell Dowell, working in various roles before stepping up as the general manager of pre-contracts for the Australian business unit, where her responsibilities included developing the unit’s strategy and overseeing all pre-contract activities.

Today, as the general manager for McConnell Dowell’s Australian rail business, Christopherson oversees the entire spectrum of the company’s rail projects. This includes everything from strategic planning and prospect identification to on-ground project execution, while leading a team of approximately 400 staff.

With a strong pipeline of rail construction and maintenance projects in Australia, Christopherson asserts that the restructuring of McConnell Dowell’s Australian operations has enhanced the company’s capabilities to meet the growing demand.

“It enables us to consistently deliver high-quality rail projects that not only meet, but exceed, our clients’ expectations, further strengthening our extensive track record of successful rail construction and maintenance projects across Australia,” says Christopherson.

Of the company’s large portfolio of rail projects, McConnell has delivered the Victorian State Government’s Level Crossing Removal Program as the constructor and leader of the Western Program Alliance. Since 2017, the company has successfully removed nine level crossings across Melbourne as part of its package of works. This effort has not only enhanced safety for local road users but also streamlined travel and alleviated congestion in these areas.

McConnell Dowell is also delivering the Inland Rail Project in Victoria, which its rail team kicked off late last year. This project holds significant importance for regional Victoria, as it promises to deliver reliable freight transport for local industries, businesses and communities.

“We completed the first phase of major construction during the ARTC rail possession last month,” says Christopherson. “Our collaboration with ARTC, the client, has been exceptionally productive, and we’re delighted with the successful commencement of this project.”

McConnell Dowell has successfully removed nine level crossings across Melbourne over the last six years. (Image: McConnell Dowell)
McConnell Dowell has successfully removed nine level crossings across Melbourne over the last six years. (Image: McConnell Dowell)

Another notable project is the new Midland Station in Perth, marking McConnell Dowell’s first major rail and infrastructure project for the Public Transport Authority (PTA) of Western Australia. McConnell Dowell is part of the Midland Junction Alliance delivering the $330 million project, which includes decommissioning and demolishing the existing 53-year-old train station and the design and construction of a new station. This project has recently commenced, says Christopherson, and McConnell Dowell’s rail team is currently onsite, actively engaged in the initial stages of the work.

“McConnell Dowell is contributing to major rail projects that are reshaping the rail industry,” says Christopherson. “The growing prominence of the rail sector, with both federal and state governments actively seeking to invest in enhancing the nation’s rail infrastructure, provides a stable baseload of work for our business.”

“There are several major projects currently underway or in the tender phase in various states, such as the Inland Rail Project and the Suburban Rail Loop in Victoria, Tram Grade Separation Projects in South Australia, and PTA rail upgrades in Western Australia.

“It’s certainly a diverse industry in terms of the scale of projects within the pipeline – allowing us to engage in projects ranging from smaller endeavours, typically under $5 million, which offer valuable experiences for our up-and-coming project managers, to multi-billion-dollar projects where we play a significant role in shaping the future of rail infrastructure.”

While the project pipeline remains strong, the industry is still facing several significant challenges. Hyperinflation has been triggered by global events, difficulties have arisen from various procurement approaches and contractual models, including rigid hard dollar contracts ill-suited for adapting to changing conditions, and there are ongoing issues related to skilled labour shortages. Rail construction, in particular, faces additional complexities due to stringent safety and technical requirements.

“The ability to address these challenges effectively relies on competent individuals with the right skillsets,” says Christopherson. “McConnell Dowell’s regionally based model for our rail division enables us to focus on equipping our teams with the necessary skills, expertise and experience.”

“This approach allows us to successfully navigate these complex challenges, ensuring the delivery of high-quality rail projects that will serve communities for decades to come.”

In addressing these challenges, McConnell Dowell’s approach to project selection is another vital aspect. The company’s national rail business is highly selective about the projects it undertakes, employing a rigorous process to evaluate potential opportunities.

“Our approach is deliberate in both client selection and target regions,” says Christopherson. “We avoid overextending ourselves, as it is essential to deliver excellent results for our clients.”

McConnell Dowell’s purpose, Providing a Better Life, is not a mere slogan or something displayed in the staff room; it’s deeply ingrained in everything that it does. Every project undertaken, across all business divisions, is assessed to ensure it improves the lives of its staff, the communities it works in, and/or the clients it’s working for.

As one of the few female general managers of a major rail construction business in Australia, Christopherson says diversity also plays an important role in future-proofing McConnell Dowell’s rail division. “Building a more effective approach to project selection and delivery benefits from a team that brings diverse perspectives, backgrounds and experiences to the table,” she says.

“I’ve observed that as more women take on decision-making roles, a positive ripple effect occurs, fostering an inclusive environment where individuals feel empowered to share their ideas and encouraging greater team participation in decision making.”

In the past eight years, McConnell Dowell has grown female representation in its business by over 60 per cent. The company recently had two more female general managers join its Australian leadership team, bringing the team’s female representation to approximately 40 per cent.

“To further support diversity in the rail construction sector, McConnell Dowell and I actively participate in the Australasian Railway Association and its Women in Rail Committee,” she says. “Additionally, I’m a member of the Australian Constructors Association’s (ACA) Culture Committee, supporting the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (CICT).”

“These committees and advisory groups are dedicated to driving positive change in our industry, a cause McConnell Dowell takes great pride in.”

In the past eight years, McConnell Dowell has grown female representation in its business by over 60 per cent. (Image: McConnell Dowell)
In the past eight years, McConnell Dowell has grown female representation in its business by over 60 per cent. (Image: McConnell Dowell)

Notably, the ACA Culture Committee successfully secured a commitment from all ACA members, including McConnell Dowell, to pursue the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Employer of Choice for Gender Equality (EOCGE) citation, which extends beyond the construction sector. This program is voluntary and available to businesses in all industries. With just over 125 businesses having achieved the citation, obtaining this recognition is a significant undertaking.

“If Australia’s leading construction contractors obtain the WGEA EOCGE citation, it will significantly impact the industry, promoting better and more inclusive workplaces for everyone,” says Christopherson. “At McConnell Dowell, we actively participate in such initiatives to drive real change within the sector.”

Backed by the company’s experienced teams, commitment to diversity and rigorous project selection approach, McConnell Dowell has established itself as a reliable rail partner in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, primarily in track and civil construction.

The national rail business’s expertise extends to a wide range of projects, including level crossing removals, encompassing the construction of new stations, track infrastructure, as well as associated structures, lighting, overhead wiring, and signalling systems related to these removals. It also has a strong track record in building rail maintenance yards, stabling yards and intermodal freight terminals, along with all necessary structures and elements to support their development.

While the national rail business excels in delivering projects in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, Christopherson explains that its skillsets can be applied effectively in Queensland and New South Wales.

“We are here to support these regions in pursuing projects that may involve interfaces with the rail network, even if they do not fall within the scope of traditional rail projects,” she says. “In essence, our specialised expertise is well-equipped to address intricate rail interfaces of various sizes and levels of complexity.”

“Ultimately, our goal is to become a trusted delivery partner for the national rail construction and maintenance sector, offering clients reliable solutions for complex challenges and projects.”

With McConnell Dowell’s multidisciplinary expertise and the support of other divisions within the company, such as its engineering arm, bridge and civil components and building business, the national rail business is well-equipped to deliver cutting-edge solutions for rail construction and maintenance projects across Australia.

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