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HS2 celebrates the UK’s first female rig driver: Natalie Smith is leading the piling operations for HS2's Duddeston Junction viaduct
HS2 celebrates the UK’s first female rig driver: Natalie Smith is leading the piling operations for HS2's Duddeston Junction viaduct

HS2 celebrates the UK’s first female rig driver

Natalie Smith from Redditch is quite literally laying the foundations for HS2’s arrival.

The 44-year-old mother of one is among the growing ‘orange army’ of female construction workers that changed career to play a part in building Britain's new railway.

Natalie, who now lives in Castle Bromwich, was both intrigued and inspired by HS2’s construction, which she could see taking shape from her bedroom window.

After working as a forklift truck driver in warehouse operations, and despite having secured promotion to a management position, Natalie felt it was time for change.

She felt confident there was a transferrable element to her skillset and began researching construction-related roles that could set her on the path to a new start.

A friend of her father already worked on HS2, as a construction manager, and Natalie asked how she might get on board. She contacted SB3, the Bachy Soletanche and Balfour Beatty Ground Engineering joint venture, leading the foundation works for HS2 in the West Midlands. SB3 were recruiting for trainee piling operatives, a skilled role that requires operatives to drive steel columns into the ground. SB3 were offering one-year’s training with accreditation – exactly what Natalie was looking for.

The whole process happened quickly. In June 2022, Natalie submitted her application to SB3 and within three weeks, she was on board with a team of ten new recruits working on HS2.   

Natalie sailed through the training programme, excelling at all the learning modules from Slinger to Piling Operative. She passed with flying colours and became a fully qualified Rig Attendant.

Now an established member of the team, Natalie and her colleagues began the concrete reinforcement works, digging up to 35m depths, to stabilise the ground ready for the network of viaducts and bridges that will carry HS2 trains. Her passion and enthusiasm shone through, and when she was ready for career progression, Natalie’s construction manager put her forward for the next available course.

SB3 funded the training which would see her progress from Rig Attendant, signalling the piling operations, to Rig Driver, where she would take charge of the 86 tonnes BG33 piling rig and drive 20 tonne steel rods into the ground.

When Natalie completed the course in September 2023, she received accreditation from awarding body CITA, who confirmed she was the first female in the UK to achieve Rig Driver status.

Five months into her new role, Natalie couldn’t be happier. She works as part of a 14 person team on the HS2 route in Birmingham between Saltley and Curzon Street. She is currently leading the piling operation for the Duddeston Junction viaduct – which requires 110 piles.

Taking charge of the rig team is a huge responsibility, but it’s a challenge Natalie relishes. She credits the entire team for supporting her and hopes by sharing her story, more women will feel empowered to step forward and start a career in construction.

Natalie said:

“Apparently, I’m the first female in the UK to qualify as a Rig Driver, which makes me feel really proud of what I’ve achieved. On site, I am the only female in the rig team, but it doesn’t bother me, or the lads, everyone is just so supportive.

“My mum can’t believe the huge machines I drive, and my son asks every night “How many holes have you dug today mum?”.

“It’s great to be doing something different. To play a part in building this new railway, that will stand for years to come, means I’m part of a moment in history and I love that idea.”

HS2 is striving to encourage more women to enter the rail and construction sectors. In 2022/23, thirty percent of HS2’s Tier 1 supply chain workforce were female, which is above the industry average.

Balfour Beatty VINCI, HS2’s construction partner for the West Midlands, wants to help more women start a career in the sector. On 8th March, to mark International Women’s Day, it is launching an exclusive ‘women’s only’ Introduction to Construction training course, which equips women with the skills and accreditation they need to start a new career in just 6-8 weeks. The training course will start in June 2024 and will be held at South and City College, Birmingham.

For more information about the course, or to register your attendance, contact Balfour Beatty VINCI’s Skills, Employment and Education team at see.team@balfourbeattyvinci.com

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