At first glance, following an Oxford undergraduate degree in history and economics with an MIT master’s in transportation might seem unusual. But for Nicola Shaw, the combination has been a perfect fit, leading to a worldwide series of consulting and executive positions. The latest is her current post as CEO of High Speed 1, the railroad that runs from London to the English Channel tunnel.
Shaw is responsible for customer relations and all the line’s facilities, which include London’s historic St. Pancras Station and the new Stratford International Station built for the 2012 Olympics, now the hub of Europe’s largest urban renewal project.
As a result, her days involve everything from thinking about signaling and passenger comfort to negotiating with Central London real estate developers and suburban community groups.
“My time at Oxford definitely inspired my interest in how cities develop, the history of the Industrial Revolution, and social mobility,” says Shaw, who entered MIT’s Interdepartmental Transportation Program in 1993. She found mentors in professors Cynthia Barnhart and Nigel Wilson, her thesis advisor, who has also been an ongoing source of IAP and summer interns.
The MIT program’s emphasis on civil engineering, with additional work in urban planning, helped her “learn to think of transportation as a system—the interplay between different aspects of the business, how a network works, both the operational aspects and the human interface.”
Another lesson: the importance of teamwork. “That’s the beauty of an interdisciplinary program, with no choice of classes in the first year,” she recalls. “It turns out that you’re good at some things and other people at other things—you’d better make friends, because you might need help in the next problem set.”
Shaw has applied her skills at the World Bank in the United States and with the engineering consultancy Halcrow in the Philippines, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. She also held top positions at the transport company FirstGroup and two U.K. transportation agencies before joining HS1.
Though she’s enjoyed traveling and living abroad, Shaw considers herself a Londoner, making her home there with her husband and two stepsons. They’ve helped Shaw, a longtime tennis player, cultivate affection for watching rugby. In addition, her passion for visual art motivated her to establish a rotating exhibit space at St. Pancras.
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