Suburban Rail Loop team

Article date
12 February 2020

Meet Nicole Stoddart

Image showing SRL Rail & Infrastructure Executive General Manager, Nicole Stoddart

With global experience delivering major engineering and construction projects, Suburban Rail Loop Authority’s Nicole Stoddart leads the design and development of the Suburban Rail Loop rail infrastructure.  

When Nicole started out as a junior engineer in the 1990s, she would usually be the only woman on a worksite. In the male-dominated field, she has never let being a woman hold her back and has actively challenged gender bias in the workplace. 
Nicole grew up in Greensborough and studied civil engineering at RMIT University. But her passion for engineering gave her a passport to the world, with an impressive 25-year career spanning projects across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Philippines and Thailand. 

Now back in her hometown of Melbourne, as Executive General Manager of Rail Infrastructure at SRLA, she leads the team behind the design and development of the biggest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Victoria. 
A Chartered Engineer, graduate of the Company Directors and with certificates in OH&S, Applied Finance and an unlimited Commercial Builder’s license, Nicole Stoddart’s experience includes work  on London’s St Pancras Station, Melbourne’s Level Crossing Removal Project, and other major infrastructure projects here at home and abroad.

Meet Chris Deakin

Chris Deakin

There was once a time when parting the sea was the most spectacular of biblical miracles.

Nowadays, it’s the simple work of an expert engineer.

Just ask Chris Deakin, who divided the Singapore River before re-diverting it, to accommodate an underground train station.

“We designed the deepest station in Singapore which is 45 metres deep, and we moved the Singapore River 40 metres across so we could build a train station in the best location for the Downtown Line Three project,” he said.

“We just didn’t have enough room for the station without excavating into a hill which would have made construction far more difficult, so we suggested to the government moving the river across, and they said, good solution, let’s do it.”

A modern miracle perhaps, in one of the world’s most bustling metropolises where the population is almost six million.

“We designed a diversion behind the retaining wall of the existing river, steel piles where put in and then you basically undo the plug, let it run around, so then there is an island in the middle. At this point you’ve got two rivers, so you close one off to create the diversion and to give clear space for the construction.”

Chris Deakin now brings his many years of international experience to Melbourne’s proposed mega-project as Design Director of Suburban Rail Loop.

A 90-kilometre ring through the middle suburbs with up to 15 new stations, connections to the airport and current metropolitan and regional services, Suburban Rail Loop will fundamentally change how people move around Melbourne.

While Chris doesn’t expect to be moving any waterways, he says with a project of the scale and complexity of Suburban Rail Loop, challenges are unavoidable.

“My job is to work with the team to look at every single facet of the railway, to ensure we create the best possible customer experience – from the ground level architecture to station depth, platform size and interchange, through to the type of trains - the seating arrangement, doors and the train stabling facility."

Stage One from Cheltenham to Box Hill is a 27-kilometre section of underground twin tunnels, six new stations and interchanges with existing public transport.

With critical planning and development underway, Chris Deakin says the end experience for Victorian passengers is first and foremost.

“We want to minimise the time it takes for customers to get from platform to platform, so one of the primary goals is to get the interchanges as tight as possible and to make travelling across the network convenient and seamless.”

While managing a Gastropub in Liverpool, Chris was inspired by the ‘Grand Designs phenomenon’ that swept Europe when the show became a hit in the late 1990’s.

He did a building course and planned to become an architect.

But with his father an engineer and an opportunity arising through a family friend to design rail components for a project in Ireland, life seemed to have other plans – and he set about getting his civil engineering qualifications.

“If I wasn’t doing this, I would say I’d probably still be doing something relative to problem solving. I could probably have put my hand to other industries and been happy as long as I was being creative and challenged.”

Chris has spent the past 12 years working on rail projects across Asia, including the development of high-speed rail between Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, where he is a permanent resident.

It’s where he met his wife Lorraine who grew up in Glen Waverley - one of the designated station locations for Stage One of Suburban Rail Loop.

“When I first arrived in Melbourne, Lorraine was flying over to visit me when she could on weekends, and we were driving the SRL route together,” he said.

“I was looking at potential station locations and was trying to get the context of where I was. My wife is an architect and lived in Glen Waverley when she was young, so she loved being my guide around her old neighbourhood.”

Meet David Radcliffe

David Radcliffe

Delivering major rail projects has been a passport to the world for David Radcliffe.

From coast to coast across Australia, to Europe, the Middle East, Africa and right throughout Asia – he’s spent the better part of the past two decades co-ordinating simultaneous, multi-billion-dollar projects and thousands of global staff.

It’s the kind of lifestyle that could not have been sustained without the patience and understanding of his wife of 36 years, Wendy.

“At one level she is relatively used to it, but that doesn’t mean we necessarily like it.”

“We don’t have kids and as I’ve said to people over the years, I don’t think I could have done it with kids,” he said.

An electrical engineer by trade, David Radcliffe began his career building power stations, but six years in, an opportunity to work on power and overhead design on a rail project took his career in a different direction.

The veteran of rail construction chuckles as he muses that he fell into the industry “by pure chance – but I’ve stayed ever since.”

When the Victorian Government announced in 2018 it would seek to start the biggest ever Rail Project in the state’s history, Suburban Rail Loop - David Radcliffe got the first call.

“This was right at the ground floor and I was staff member number one of Suburban Rail Loop, so when I arrived it was just me.”

“What was attractive about that was the ability I had to influence the outcome, and the ability to help set the project up for successful delivery,” he said.

Fresh from delivering the Sydney Metro North West project on time and a billion dollars under budget as Project Director, Mr Radcliffe was looking for the next challenge.

“SRL is one of those projects in the world that is a mega-project, there aren’t too many projects of this size and complexity globally, and it’s a great follow on from delivering the largest piece of rail infrastructure in Australia, in the Sydney Metro North West.”

“When I joined the Sydney project it had some significant issues, but we managed to work through them and solve those problems in a way that ultimately delivered the project on time and under budget – so I’m pretty proud of that achievement. And certainly, I want to bring the lessons learned in how we did that to SRL.”

On cost and on scale, there’s nothing bigger than Suburban Rail Loop.

A 90-kilometre rail line that will orbit Melbourne’s middle suburbs, creating up to 15 new stations, connections to existing metro and regional lines, and links to the new Melbourne Airport Rail.

Early works on Stage One, the 27-kilometre tunnel between Cheltenham and Box Hill, are set to get underway in 2022.

The loop will transform how people move around Melbourne, relieve congestion and will drive economic growth and urban renewal around the stations.

As David Radcliffe hastens to add – it’s more than just a rail project.

“It’s a game changer for Melbourne really, the fact that you move people is a by-product, because what it does for the whole community is quite different - it facilitates their way of life.”

He hopes his contribution will be how Suburban Rail Loop is set up for timely completion.

“The projects are getting bigger by their nature and this one has got a $50 billion publicly announced number – it’s right up there in terms of one of the biggest projects in the world,” he said.

“While that $50 billion is just a number – what it indicates is the complexity and the amount of work that you’ve got to do to manage effectively and deliver on time – that’s not to be underestimated.”

As Strategic Adviser, David Radcliffe provides guidance based on his many years of experience and is considered a mentor among his peers.

“I’m at the stage in my career where I’m able to give that knowledge back across all elements of a project, without taking on the direct management.”

Because the Loop is a standalone line, it won’t be constrained by Melbourne’s 100-year-old existing network.

David Radcliffe says that presents exciting possibilities for world leading technology and a fresh approach.

“We can change the rolling stock, we can change the way we operate, we can change the power supplies - we’re not tied to anything that’s happened previously and that’s hugely exciting to somebody like me with a technical background.”

“You can think – Great, what’s the best way of doing this?”

Meet Mick Douge

Mick Douge

When mistakes can cost lives and delays mean mega-dollars, precision is at the heart of everything.

That’s the life of a civil engineer at sea.

“Precision was paramount - what could go wrong, what are the risk assessments - that rigour of doing things is at another level because out there you’re a lone ranger, you are in the middle of nowhere on water.”

A seasoned veteran of offshore construction, Mick Douge spent the better part of twenty years managing oil and gas projects off the coasts of Europe, Asia and in the treacherous Bass Strait.

And if there is a skill he mastered, it was planning.

“Even back then on the larger barges it was up to a million dollars per day lost if you had a delay. So, all of the planning, transport and fabrication onshore – down to the last bolt and making sure you had a spare bolt, because a single bolt you haven’t got in the middle of the North Sea means you’re behind for two days,” he said.

“It really taught me that if you’re going to do projects well you have to plan, and keep planning, and don’t stop planning.”

Mick Douge was just year out of University when he decided to join friends on a month-long combi van tour of Europe.

A quick detour to Belgium to catch up with a fellow Swinburne University graduate resulted in an unexpected job offer.

Just three days later, he was on a helicopter en route to a barge in the North Sea to manage a multi-million-dollar offshore expansion.

He still laughs as he recalls his mother’s reaction to his phone call home.

“Mum there’s been a bit of a delay – What’s that Michael? Well I’m staying over here.’

“You can just imagine, it was so foreign for anyone to get an appreciation of that,” he said.

That was in 1980, a different era for OH&S in an inherently dangerous and unforgiving workplace.

“It’s a high-risk environment and we all knew it, but the processes around managing safety and risk effectively were not what they are today,” Mr Douge said.

“We were pretty good in terms of looking after each other, but there were injuries and the consequences of getting something wrong were horrific.”

Now Director of Rail and Infrastructure on Australia’s biggest project, the Suburban Rail Loop, the Melbournian says safety is still his priority, even with major construction on Stage One of the 90-kilometre rail line two years away.

“For me it’s a very emotional question - I’ve been involved in a couple of incidents where people have been badly hurt and I can’t be more passionate about safety, and it absolutely starts on day one.”

“It’s not just the underground work, the cranage – we give a lot of attention to those things but it’s the safety and wellbeing of everybody 24/7. We need to start that culture now, so people appreciate that we’re really serious about it. Everybody needs to go home safety and come back the following day,” Mr Douge said.

Over forty years spanning the infrastructure, mining, oil and gas, water and waste water sectors, Mick Douge is an industry leader in major project management and delivery.

While there are some major differences across the industries he has worked in, he says the fundamentals of delivering projects well are the same.

“To bring all the collective skill sets across appreciation of risk, safety, decision making – all those important pillars of project success are transferable.”

Mr Douge leads a team of talented local and international engineers, designers and rail planners who have worked on rail projects around the world.

Their work is well underway developing all the technical components and physical assets of the project, from new and integrated stations, to trains and tunnels, tracks, power, communication and signalling.

To say it is a herculean effort to manage a project on such a scale, with an anticipated budget of $50 billion and a 30-year timeline, seems something of an understatement.

Thankfully, Mick Douge is pretty good at planning down to the last bolt.

Meet Yuyu Zhang

Yuyu Zhang

Once the revered capital of 13 Imperial Dynasties, Xi’an in Central China is considered the birthplace of Chinese civilisation.

Famous for its Terracotta Warriors and as the starting point of the Silk Road, the ancient city now boasts, among other things, one of the most advanced and busiest transport networks in China.

So perhaps it is no surprise that a city which has kept pace with human and industrial evolution over thousands of years, has also produced some of the world’s engineering elite – including one of Suburban Rail Loop’s own, Yuyu Zhang.

“I finished my degree in civil engineering in Xi’an and then me and my then-boyfriend - we met at university there and decided to move together to Sydney,” she said.

It was a leap of faith more than 15 years ago and the pair never looked back.

Ms Zhang completed a masters in Transport Management at Sydney University, married her partner, started a family and then began carving out her career in rail planning with major Sydney projects.

“I worked on the Sydney metro project, including Sydney Metro West and Western Sydney Airport metro, which is now the Sydney Metro Greater West - and I was also involved in the planning of Australia’s high-speed east coast rail project.”

Yuyu Zhang is now helping plan the nation’s biggest rail infrastructure project, the $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop in Victoria.

“The opportunity to plan this project well, to leave a legacy for Victorian people - this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a transport planner like me.”

The Suburban Rail Loop is an orbital rail system that will change how people move around Melbourne, providing better connectivity to employment, education and health precincts in the city’s middle suburbs, and linking to every major metropolitan service from Frankston to Werribee.

“Suburban Rail Loop provides a lot of opportunities for customers – the first thing is obviously providing better public transport and linking to the airport, but it also enables land use and economic development – not just in Melbourne’s centre, but in the outer-ring areas,” Ms Zhang said.

“This will hopefully allow the project to develop an economic corridor so that provides significant opportunities for the Victorian economy, in addition to the transport benefits.”

Ms Zhang’s expertise is in transport integration and it is her job to ensure the 90-kilometre loop isn’t “just a standalone transport project.”

She says for more motorists to leave their cars at home for public transport there needs to be a shift to a more convenient overall journey.

“We need to consider how we bring people to the stations efficiently, for example by bus, by tram – how does SRL integrate with the wider network to provide a comfortable and convenient journey for the customer?”

“I think these are some of the challenges, particularly in the business case development phase."

"As a civil engineer and transport planner, we need to really think about how we can optimise the network planning – not just focus on the corridor itself but the wider transport network.”

She joins a team of local and international experts who are in the critical design and development phase, ahead of planned construction in 2022.

“Working with a group of highly talented rail engineers and rail planners who have significant international experience working on complex projects – to work with them and learn from them is very attractive to me.”

It has been challenging working away from her school-aged children, but Ms Zhang says she believes she is leading by example.

“They’re great and they are old enough to understand, I just need to make sure that when I’m with them it’s high-quality time.”

“I think my kids get to learn that you’ve got to follow your passion and pursue it very hard, so they see these actions and they support me in that as well.”