“If we can do better, then why aren’t we doing it already?”

A highly experienced rail transformation leader, Tamara Mahes, General Manager Rail Operations, Fortescue Metals Group thrives in the challenge of doing what has never been done before and believes that we can always do better. Over her 18 years in heavy haul, she has successfully led and delivered continuous improvement programs across operations and maintenance, as well as large-scale mega-capital projects. She has held leadership positions both nationally and globally at top tier mining and logistics companies; and is locally-based in the Pilbara community.

In the lead up to her participation at the Heavy Haul Rail 2023 (29-30 March) in Perth, Tamara joined us to share her inspiring career journey to date and excitement about realising the ambitions of Real Zero with her team, with Zero Harm.

Tamara Mahes, General Manager Rail Operations, Fortescue Metals Group

How did you got into rail and what has been your journey to your current role?

I started my career in rail in South Africa when I was awarded a bursary from Transnet Freight Rail for my final year at university studying for a civil engineering degree.  But my interest in rail started in my first year at university when we had to build a model of a transportation system – I fell in love with the maglev concept for its sustainability and use of energy.  I spent 10 years at Transnet learning from the most wonderful mentors and legends in rail.  Both formal and informal training was part of the investment Transnet made in my career.

I was entrusted with the rail infrastructure maintenance team at Ermelo on the coal export corridor.  This was the fondest time of my career where I met the most kind and humble people with whom we achieved benchmark results of productivity and performance improvement.

I had the opportunity to study concepts of engineering management that included operations management, systems engineering and logistics engineering which opened my eyes to see opportunities from understanding the theory of constraints.

It was a period of accelerated growth in the mineral export business and I was grateful for the accountability to reimagine the operation to maximise the technology leaps of dual voltage locomotives, distributed power trains and engineering design level capacity modelling to improve asset utilization striving for operational excellence.

I was part of the senior leadership in a team called Logistics Integration, working with subject matter experts who earned their stripes in operations and maintenance execution.  We were in a small  central unit and that period had accelerated my learning in multidisciplinary optimization and strategic planning.

With more than seven mega projects underway concurrently, there were several joint ventures that brought together global expertise.  I had the chance to learn from each of the teams and then went back to the same groups with shared learnings to lift the standard of mega projects delivery.

With those projects in execution, with my husband and three kids in tow, we sought the global adventure to further learn and be part of the next phase of heavy haul growth.  This brought me to the Pilbara.  I joined WSP as an advisor to the heavy haul industry, and later had the opportunity with BHP to develop and provide visibility of the pathway for safe sustainable operations to grow.  Working with the young bright team there was rewarding watching them develop and achieve performance improvement and know what it feels like to be in the early stages of winning.

With the decarbonisation challenge, I am at the stage of my career where I want to contribute more to society on a larger scale.  I am up for the challenge to do what has never been done before.  I will give it my best.  That has brought me to Fortescue.

What are you passionate about? Why do you do what you do?

I am passionate about paying forward the experience of mentorship and investment that was made in me to create the next generation of heavy haul railway legends.  There are many young entrants into the mining industry that need a little support in achieving their own personal goals for a rewarding career.

I care about diversity, and making the place we work safe for all where we can thrive together.

What motivates you?

The hope in the eyes of the teams when they see that they are cared for.  It motivates me watching them do things they never imagined they could achieve.  I am highly competitive, so winning motivates me, each little win to achieve the strategic business vision.  I know I cannot win this alone.

Can you share your experiences good and bad, lesson learnt in relation to mega projects.

You have got to believe that anything is possible.  You have to be brave.

Secondly, acknowledge the complexity of rail as a multidisciplinary operation with interdependent interfaces, especially in brownfields operations.  Start with the operating philosophy to transition from current operations to the end stage, limiting change that has to be reverted.  Be compassionate to the operators and maintainers.  Decide upfront on what is important- simplicity, unit cost, sustainability and or growth.  Then only, seek the engineering solution that is to deliver it both safely and with safety built into the design.

Thirdly, balance governance and speed by having a competent empowered team.  And lastly, by creating a learning culture where trial and error is not used where learnings globally can easily be found in experience. There are lessons learnt and fundamentals shared by peers in reviews from a risk perspective of knowing what not to do.  Always listen, successful mega projects sometimes need a boost / redirection managing risk to delivery of the business case.

In addition to being the Chair of Day Two, Tamara shared her experiences at Heavy Haul Rail 2023 (29-30 March) in Perth as part of an industry panel discussion looking at ‘How to deliver successful mega projects through team culture’.

To register your interest in future Heavy Haul Rail events, visit the event website www.informa.com.au/hhrail23