Rail Profile: Stephen Lewis 

With a drive to pass on his expertise and knowledge to future generations; Stephen is focused on developing a strong team and having a impact on those around him. Find out about Stephen's role, his aspirations and what pushes him to do well. 

What did you do before joining British Steel?   

I was working at the University of Sheffield as a researcher and before that I completed a PhD in railway engineering. 

I worked for 6 years at the university researching rail steels, friction and wear. After 6 years though it felt like it was time for a change of environment, but I loved what I did in terms understanding wheel and rail interaction; and rail steel failure mechanisms. 

Why did you want to join British Steel?  

The Rail Technologies department at British Steel offered that rare opportunity to continue working in the field, but in an industrial commercial setting. 

This new setting gave me exposure to customer interaction and the wider rail industry, and this has really been a satisfying side of my job 

British Steel really offered a job I was qualified for and took my career in the direction I wanted it to go. 

What does your day-to-day role involve?  

I am currently managing the Rail Technologies team. It is a very commercial and customer-facing technical department. 

We work on three core areas, these are consultancy, product development and customer technical services.  

Our consultancy projects focus on the jobs for external customers and are typically looking at solving rail-related problems which occur after these rails have left British Steel and have been installed in track. Rails can be subject to a long and harsh operating life once they go into track. They will be subject to millions of tonnes of train wheel passage, welding, corrosion, grinding, heavy braking and wheel slip. The excellent quality of our rails means they can withstand these demanding conditions, giving a long, trouble-free service life. Sometimes the operating conditions are too harsh though and rail breaks and defects do occur.  

Customers will make use of our forensic metallurgy skills to help them understand the root cause of these rail issues. We can then make recommendations about how to prevent future defects from occurring. Knowledge that we gain from analysing broken rails can also feedback into developing our existing products.  

In other projects we may be required to travel out to a particular part of the rail network and take detailed measurements in order to understand the root cause of rail defects. These projects always culminate in the delivery of a high-quality technical report to the customer. The focus on quality is important, as these reports are our shop window. A lot of the business we get is either repeat or word-of-mouth. 

For the product development projects we work closely with the Research and Development team, and Marketing department to understand and promote the performance of our premium rail products (HP335, HP350, Zinoco and Steel Sleepers).  

My links with academia also help as we have had some of our products independently tested at research institutions in the recent past. A large part of the product development task focuses on the team going out and taking detailed measurements of our rails while they are being used by the customer i.e. rolled over by trains. We repeat the measurements over a long-time frame, typically many years, to measure how they are performing and then compare that to competitor products or the standard grade offering.   

Our HP335 rails were first installed in in 2011 at a site in the north of England. As a team we have been going to that site every one or two years since to measure how they are performing. As a comparison, when the standard grade rail was installed on the same piece of track, it lasted 5 years before needing to be replaced. Our data from the HP335 though shows that it is predicted to take 35 years before it needs replacing making HP335 a much more sustainable product.  

We also interface with marketing because the data that we build-up becomes great product promotion material; and that can provide information for technical presentations, publications and product literature. 

Customer technical services is quite similar to the consultancy work that we do but in this case we are not being paid by the customer. This is because it is usually an issue that has the potential to have much wider business/commercial implications. For example, last year a customer had an issue welding our HP335 rails. The rail welds that they were producing were failing in one of the quality control tests. There was a risk that HP335 could have been blamed for the welding issue which could have had serious reputational consequences for the product and British Steel. The team reacted quickly and we arranged for the customer to send us some welded samples to analyse. From testing the welded rails we could see that it was in issue with their welding machine which was resulting in non-conformal welds being produced. We discovered that their machine had a blunt stripping tool, the tool needs to be maintained so it stays nice and sharp to give a good quality finish and a conformal welded rail. Upon discovering this we could provide feedback that it was not an issue with our product, but something the customer could fix easily.  

What do you enjoy about your job?  

Every day is different, it is a very creative job which suits my personality.   

I didn’t feel like I had that in academia, but do now. I am learning new things almost on a daily basis. I have enjoyed the challenge of managing people too, it is a skill that I didn’t think I had until I joined British Steel; a hidden talent that I seem to keep building and improving.   

The customer interaction is also something that I wouldn’t want taking away. I love building a strong working friendship with the customer to the point where you never seem like you have a problem to solve; because you have that good relationship you are able to negotiate and deal with any issues much easier.  

Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years' time within British Steel?   

I do tend to push myself and see what is possible.  

I joined 6 years ago and before that I never imagined I could be manager of the department, but I made it happen, I am always looking for the next stage.   

In the next 5 years, I would like to see myself as a senior manager, with a decent sized technical but customer interfacing team, perhaps an account manager type of role with a technical edge that can help customers. 

One of the key aspects of the role for me is being able to pass on my knowledge to future generations; and I want do my little bit to make British Steel a better place in the process. The way I see it, if I build people up and support them that will make my life easier and British Steel a better place. It’s a win-win! 

What advice would you give to other people considering a career with us?  

It does feel like a family at British Steel, that is one of the pros of working here, is the other people that you work with.   

The relationships and the camaraderie that you build, everyone has each other's backs and want to do a great job.