Powerful Women Driving the Rail Industry

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Erika Vallerand, 26, is a Design Engineer in the Product Integration and Installation team based at Bombardier’s Design Center in Saint-Bruno, Québec, Canada. She works to integrate components – such as doors, seats, or floors – into train cars, and ensures their safety and quality. MOVE spoke to her about how teams must work together as reliably as the systems she designs.

Would you say that you have an emotional attachment to trains? 

Somehow, yes. I believe that metropolitan transport adds beauty and character to a city. And high-speed trains are awesome – they are examples of high skill engineering. But I feel even more attached to people than to trains. So, I chose engineering more for the teamwork than for the technical aspects. Of course, I am proud of the product we make, but I wouldn’t survive in the profession if I had to work by myself.

Have key experiences abroad influenced what you do? 

As a student, I visited ten cities in Germany by train – and it was so fast and convenient! That’s when I decided to work with trains, so that rail transport in America, whether between cities or within one city, can become as great as in Europe. Cities in America have become so congested that they have no choice except to look for rail transport solutions.

How would you describe your work?

I am lucky to have a true engineering job. I work in the product integration and installation team. Design engineers integrate components and all systems of a train car from the engineering, methods and production point of view. We need to make sure all the systems link mechanically, and this is where it gets complicated.

Could you walk us through some steps of your projects?

Well, I don’t start from scratch. The structure and aerodynamic engineers give me skeleton beams, and a customer gives us list of specifications. For example, they want grab handles at a certain height, or a certain number of seats in the car. Then we separate the train into many different little systems, and I start designing some of these. The difficulty is linking one system to another. We also have to make sure that producing what we design is actually possible, that the operator has the space to insert his hand in the hole and crank the bolt, let’s say.

wants rail transport in America to become as great as in Europe.
Erika Vallerand wants rail transport in America to become as great as in Europe.

Can you describe a project you found exciting?

I just finished something that went super well. A transport authority asked us to design and install a new camera and screen system in the locomotive for backing-up. I led the kick-off meeting, made a presentation and supervised onsite in Toronto. Project management was new to me. I know I have direct control over the technical part, and I can do the design myself, but to rally people to one common goal, to finish on time and cost, was my biggest achievement.

What particular traits does a person need to be good at this job?

You need to be curious about how things work, and meticulous, because the small details are critical. You need to be flexible, as people change their mind a lot. Also, you have to integrate various interests, such as health and safety, production, or maintenance. And in a global company such as Bombardier, you need to be communicative. I am based in Montréal, but I deal with people all over the world.

Could you tell us more about the increasingly international aspect of your work?

Well, I am based in St-Bruno, Canada, and I am a designer for a project in Europe (RER NG for Paris). Most of the team is based in Europe (France, Germany, Czech Republic), and we also work with designers based in India. This type of collaboration isn’t an exception, it’s part of our new company structure and it provides us with valuable insights and advantages. Future projects are all going to be managed this way, which allows us to share essential knowledge between sites. It also allows us to train and develop designers worldwide. Our department has assisted European projects in the bid phase before, but this is the first time we are working with Europe during the design phase.

As a female engineer, have you sometimes been the only women in the room?

Yes, this first started happening in university, but I try to view it as an advantage. People are watching you more, yet in the end, they listen to you more. But this is true of anyone. Some shy people don’t talk much, so when they do, people pay attention. I also try to support other women. Currently, I am president of Female Engineering Network in North America.

What are your next steps professionally?

As a result of the Toronto project having gone so well, I’m starting a new job as a strategy analyst in the procurement department. I’m also doing a part-time MBA. After that, I hope to work in Europe, to learn as much as I can about the trains there.