A full circle: Thi-Mai Tran, Alstom GCC
Thi-Mai Tran, managing director, Alstom GCC, explains why being a woman in the field of transportation was never an issue for her—simply because her zest for work overpowers all else.
Energetic, passionate, and industrious are just the words to describe Alstom GCC’s managing director, Thi-Mai Tran. Her words ring with a deep-set zeal for her work, a profession she has been involved in since the beginning of her career now. Her enthusiasm for the transportation industry seems to be unmatched, and it is with definite eagerness that she shares her experience and thoughts on her illustrious career.
Where it all began
“I discovered that in 20 years, I didn’t finish learning all that I needed to learn.”
“I would never have thought when I was younger, that I would one day end up working in the train industry,” reminisces Tran. “As a young girl, I always used to play with electric toy trains owned by my brothers. Our dining room had a sort of a big circuit with trains around, and it was largely considered to be a men’s game. But I was always interested in playing with those trains, and I continued to be interested in this as the years passed by. In fact, I was greatly interested in cars, cranes, and all mechanical types of engines or toys. My parents used to say, ‘we have three boys’, rather than one girl and two boys.”
Tran began her career in the field of transportation at Lohr Industrie, a French manufacturer of goods transport systems.
“At the age of 25, I had an interview with the president. At that time, it was authorised to say that you wish to hire a male person, something which is not permissible anymore.
“He wanted a young, male, technical-commercial engineer, to coordinate the link between the company headquarters and the factory. Even though I was aware that he wanted a male candidate, I went for the interview.
“I was sitting in a room with a lot of young guys, who regarded me with confused stares. And after one hour in the president’s office, he said to me: okay, you’re hired. And that was a Friday evening, so I asked if I had to come in the next day, and he said yes, and that was that. Of course, when I started, I thought I’d spend three years in the company and then do something else. But that was not the case. I stayed there for 20 years.”
When queried on what made her stay at the company for nearly half of her career, Tran explains that the world of transportation, while expansive at first glance, had so many more details and things to learn about.
“I was only thinking of in terms of scaled down mock-ups, trains, signalling, little hills, because in this business there were hills, tunnels, small cities that you built, constructing a model around the table. The real world was much more different. I discovered that in 20 years, I didn’t finish learning all that I needed to learn. I learnt everything on the industrial, testing, manufacturing, design, HR, quality, test bench, everything that you can need, before joining Alstom.”
It’s a woman’s game too
“I think it’s our responsibility, as women, to help and encourage women in the workplace.”
Despite their growing presence, women’s participation in the transport industry is still limited, particularly in certain transport subsectors, such as rail and shipping.
A report titled Innovative gender equality measures in the transport industry, by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, explains that pregnancy and family status have a strong influence on the recruitment and redundancy decisions of employers and can have a negative impact on the career prospects of women working in transport. Employers are particularly concerned about the impact of career breaks on workers’ professional life; thus, maternity, childcare, or elderly care can have an adverse effect on the women’s professional careers, as employers regard female workers as being less reliable: it may be unclear for employers whether women will return to their original jobs after taking professional breaks. Moreover, employers tend to feel that it is less worthwhile ‘investing’ in female workers and, as a result, training opportunities and career prospects are considerably reduced for women.
The transport, logistics, and supply chain industry are generally described as an unconventional career choice for women. This prevailing view, highlighted in the 2015 South Australian Freight Council (SAFC) report, is supported by a perception that because the majority of employees in this industry are men, most work in this industry is stereotypically masculine.
Moreover, in the aforementioned industries, women are predominately employed in support functions and occupy managerial roles in the areas of finance, information technology, communications, human resources, business development, procurement, and quality and risk management. Men, on the other hand, are predominantly employed in the technical, operational and “physical” roles.
“I think this question [of gender difference] came much later in my career, when people started to ask me I felt lonely or out of place,” reflects Tran. “But I didn’t feel anything. Maybe I was so naïve or so disconnected and focused with my work, that it didn’t affect me. And I must say that the colleagues who I worked with didn’t make it a problem. I saw that I could become a team leader first, then the manager, then the director, then the vice-president— I could be that, without my gender acting as a hindrance. I didn’t position myself against, I positioned myself with. I was always supportive and on board with my team as they worked. This is something that remains with me even today because it’s not a problem for me to both work with and lead the team. When I joined Alstom, it was with the same type of spirit, which has always led me through years.”
Tran believes that things are certainly better for women today, not just in the field of transportation, but other industries as well. The greatest push comes from family and culture itself, and she mentions that she is grateful to her parents for being so supportive of her dreams.
“There is no limitation in the brains and the capability, or the capacity, regardless of the manager being male or female. This awareness has improved over the years. When you look at the statistics, the industry still sees a low percentage of females in this industry, but if you compare it to 50 years ago, it is much better. You had one pilot in the past, now you have several.
“In Alstom today, we aim at having 25% of our total workforce to consist of women by 2025, which is very reasonable. 20 years or even 15 years ago, there was no rationale thinking about that. It was what it happened to be.”
In 2016, Alstom Poland organised its first edition of the Women forum, an initiative aimed at promoting gender diversity within the company. The company is also looking at adding 1,000 engineers to its India workforce by 2019, with a significant share of women. Alstom also partners with a number of organisations including WISE, Business in the Community, and STEMNET to help develop awareness in engineering careers for women.
Tran also stresses on the fact that ladies drive more ladies in their teams.
“I think it’s our responsibility, as women, to help and encourage women in the workplace. Today I have no complaints at all. I believe our male colleagues are also happy to have this balance, because we see it’s less aggressive, smoother, and smarter. We learn from each other and this balance is making smarter project management, better business development, and ultimately efficient transportation.”
Alstom’s ultimate aim is to provide a railway system that becomes more integrated, more efficient for transport operators, and more attractive for passengers. They strategise to not only to provide rolling stock, services, and maintenance, but to offer sustainable mobility solutions to a world in profound transformation.
“I must say that my passion and interest [for transportation] has grown even further,” says Tran. “Because I discovered that not only do you work for something that you like, with people you like, but you also work for history. When I say that, I mean you come and develop a transportation system for a country . And you leave behind something, a legacy, a transport system. There is a metro, tramway, a suburban train, a new city, depot, there are stations, and you work for history. And when you come back years later, you see that this is what you did collectively, and so I always say to the teams— we should be proud of what we made, because we have become a part of history, something that has become a part of the city in which we’re working.”
Tran reveals that the best part of working in a region like the Middle East, and especially a city like Dubai, is the fact that it is an open playground for providers like Alstom, and is very receptive to modern solutions. Alstom delivered the Dubai tramway, the first fully integrated tramway system in the Middle East and 100% catenary-free, which opened in November 2014. The Citadis trams, signaling, and ticketing systems were supplied by Alstom, as was the control centre incorporated in the depot. Alstom equipped the network and trains with its communication-based train control (CBTC) solution, Urbalis.
Alstom is also in charge of the maintenance of the Dubai Tram system for a period of 13 years.
“The Middle East Market is driven by full turnkey for urban projects like tram and metro. There has been an important focus on the fast-growing rail transport market in the Middle East, with a government-led push for metros & trams, especially in the UAE. Our clients prefer a turnkey, a global system of transportation, where we can integrate infrastructure, signalling, station, depot, maintenance of the means of transportation, energisation, power supply, stations, including powering the platform screens doors (PSD), the CCTV, and so forth, all in one place. All this is a single system of transportation, for which Alstom is a turnkey provider. We basically hand over a single key to our client, via which he can control the entire operation.
Nature is the model
Tran takes an interesting take on the basic functionality and thought behind transportation systems. She links the concept of routes, central hubs, and the human factor to examples from natures. She highlights patterns in things like trees, where concentric circles in the cross-section radiate from a centre; leaves with veins and capilliaries, that arise from a central vein; spiderwebs, which like tree rings, emerge from a defined centre; the human skin, with its interconnected ‘paths’ and grooves; and synapses.
“I know this could be difficult to apprehend, but in the future, when someone walks from a location to their car, this is something they can think about,” says Tran. “It is a micro-movement in mobility that they’re doing, in a micro-system in the environment, which becomes a part of the wider transport circulation system. There are books that discuss sociology of mobility, where they explain the geography and history of urbanisation of all cities in the world, and how they have copied the fundamentals from the nature, but at a human scale.”
She pores over maps of the Paris metro, cycling routes in Dubai, and a simplified global map of air routes. All the maps follow a strikingly similar pattern, with paths emerging from a centralised hub, and snaking its way into human settlements.
“This is what we have to think about, and this is what our thoughts must be,” remarks Tran. “This is what I try to tell our teams as well. What are the thoughts, the added value that we can bring to our clients, bringing them the awareness of what we do. We don’t only design the metro, we reshape, rethink the mobility of the citizens. We give them the freedom to circulate from A to B and B to C, and so forth, in a seamless way.”
Alstom has proposed a number of new solutions, devised to both further the comfort of passengers and simplify procedures for operators, while incorporating modern design principles and making use of technological advancements.
Designed for a collective use and located in the station, Optimet OrbanMap is an intelligent metro map which allows a passenger to visualise at a glance the metro network, its activity, trains position, travel times, service interruptions, and the level of comfort aboard the trains. More so, city life information is obtained from social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Foursquare.
Optimet real-time train occupancy is another solution, aimed at addressing the issue of passenger congestion due to lack of knowing which carriages are empty. Optimet shows the level of occupancy per car through a coloured LED strip (red, orange or green) above the screen doors which stretches all along the platform, as well as on monitors in the station passage ways and/or elevators.
Alstom’s €14mn startup company EasyMile has manufactured an electric autonomous shuttle called ‘EZ10’; defined as an electric collective shuttle that can accommodate up to 12 passengers, the vehicle is designed to be integrated in an automated road transport systems (ARTS), dedicated to the public transportation application, in private areas or cities.
Launched with Alstom subsidiary NTL, the 100% electric Aptis is essentially a tram on wheels, carrying up to 95 passengers. It features panaromic windows, low-noise levels, smooth access for wheelchairs and strollers, and the option to ‘dock’ at footpaths, allowing passenger comfort.
Acquired by Alstom in late 2016, Nomad Digital Solutions provides passenger and fleet connectivity solutions for the railway industry. Nomad offers Wi-Fi connection solutions as well as entertainment platforms (video, music, and playback) or connected on-board services. It also provides tele-maintenance solutions, including Remote Online Condition Monitoring, Reliability Centred Maintenance, Driver Assist and Power Train products.
HealthHub is another solution from Alstom, which collects data from rolling stock, infrastructure and signalling systems, and allows predictive maintenance across all assets.
Alstom has equipped more than 50 lines with Automatic Train Operation (ATO) in cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai (China), Lausanne (Switzerland), or Panama, and is equipping 40 others making the group a leader. Alstom is also investing in equipping mainline trains with driving assistance. Driverless rolling stock ensures flexible operation and reduces cost related to operations.
Finally, Mastria is a multimodal supervision solution, which, through planned predictive and automated data analysis is able to generate quick and reliable reports, allowing operators to rapidly offer alternative mobility solutions to commuters, especially useful in case of train delays due to traffic and breakdowns.