Case studies

How MTR Crossrail is using recruitment to challenge industry stereotypes

21 Feb 2019 By Eleanor Whitehouse

The rail operator had to start from scratch and take on hundreds of staff in just nine months

If the core purpose of HR is helping an organisation focus on its people, MTR Crossrail’s HR director Alison Bell is surely the epitome of the profession. Whereas many would balk at having just nine months to turn a people function run out of a cardboard box into a full department equipped to hire hundreds of staff, Bell jumped in head first.

Initially seconded from London Overground in August 2014, Bell is now fully on board. The move originated when Asian-owned transport operator MTR was awarded the contract to run London’s impending Elizabeth line – also known as Crossrail – on behalf of Transport for London. When completed, the service will span 41 stations across the city and beyond, linking Reading and Heathrow Airport in the west with Abbey Wood in south-east London and Shenfield in Essex. “I originally just came over to help them mobilise – there was no office, no infrastructure, no people, nothing,” she says. “When I look back now, I wonder how we did it – it was quite daunting.”

While her first priority was hiring an HR team to help support her in realising the organisation’s ambitious plans to take on more than 1,100 staff in five years, she admits the rest of her to-do list competed for precedence. “Everything was a priority. It was like a jigsaw puzzle – it’s not complete until you’ve got all the pieces,” she says.

With critical posts filled, Bell and her team turned to the rest of the organisation, where not only did they have to recruit and train 100 head office staff in time for the first iteration of the project’s five-phase staged opening programme, but also TUPE transfer around 200 staff from another rail operator as stations and a section of existing line were taken over. “I didn’t have an HR business partner, so I was looking after the TUPE transfer and keeping a high-level view while my recruitment team focused on getting the adverts out, amassing the CVs and arranging assessment centres and interviews. That’s how we managed it,” Bell explains.

But while assembling an entire workforce in the space of a few months was daunting in itself, part of MTR’s promised remit was also to focus on increasing diversity within the industry, which meant moving away from its traditional middle-aged, white, male image and recruiting more women, young people and individuals from ethnic minorities directly from the local communities the Elizabeth line will serve.

“Our industry is evolving, and we were looking to move away from the stereotypical rail worker model right from day one,” says Kelly Forrest, diversity and inclusion partner. “If we better represent the people we serve, customer service should in turn be better.” But despite commendable intentions, in reality such a drastic change of tack is harder to action. With so much to deliver in a short period, Forrest laments the lack of time the team had at the very start of the process to dedicate to thinking outside the recruitment box. “But we’ve done a lot more since,” she adds.

Key to thinking outside this box was targeting under-represented groups in society, such as working mothers. As well as using targeted advertising on parenting website Working Mums, the team held open days for potential recruits to try out a simulator and get a taste of being a train driver first-hand. More than 12 per cent of MTR Crossrail’s drivers are now female, compared to just 3 per cent when it first launched – and more than double the national average of 6 per cent. Thanks to similar targeted campaigns, 28 per cent of its drivers are from a BAME background and 47 per cent are under 35, compared to national averages of 5 and 10 per cent respectively.

But Forrest is adamant that as long as this continues to increase, the team isn’t aiming for a specific target. “We need to dispel the assumption that being a train driver is a job for a white, middle-aged man,” says Forrest. “We can offer job-share opportunities, and the role is open to people of any gender, nationality or ethnicity.”

Another misconception the organisation is trying to correct is that apprenticeships are just for school leavers. MTR Crossrail now offers all its trainee drivers the opportunity to train via an apprenticeship, which 97 per cent are currently following, as well as a large number of station and head office staff. “We’ve spent all our levy funding,” says Bell. “Staff getting a qualification at the end of their training is a big thing for us, and we actively encourage it.”

But while the organisation is defining best practice in recruiting a diverse workforce, there are still some areas of the business where this remains difficult. Staff in the control room, for example, need a good understanding of how train companies operate, so hiring “a room full of people who have never worked on a railway”, as Bell puts it, would be counterproductive.

MTR Crossrail is also thinking afresh in its relationships with unions. It takes a partnership approach, inviting unions to take a “seat at the table”. “They’re very important – they’re not the enemy,” says Bell. “Yes, there will be disagreements, but those need to be open disagreements.” And it’s a strategy that appears to be working – in its four-year history, the organisation has seen no strike action, work-to-rules or ballots, and only one employment tribunal.

With subsequent phases of Crossrail’s staged opening programme already beset by construction delays, Bell and her team’s workload shows no sign of abating. “We have to be on the front foot, and ready for the next stage of the project,” she says. “We need the right staff in the right place at the right time, and to make sure they’re trained to the best of their ability in order to deliver a brilliant service.”

Construction uncertainties aside, Bell’s focus for the next few years is to make sure MTR Crossrail is industry-leading, and continues to be somewhere people choose to work. “We want to be different and have that ‘wow’ factor – not just another standard rail company,” she says. “I want everyone to see us and say ‘look what they’re doing’.”

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