A new era on the railway

Sarah Brindley is a train driver with Northern and says the flexibility and support her employer has given her shows that the rail industry is changing its attitude to women.


Sarah Brindley had been working as a self employed driving instructor when she came across an advert for train conductors at Northern in early 2013. Aged 33 at the time, she had never had any previous ambition to work on the railways, but she was bored with her job and wanted something more financially reliable. She applied. It turned out to be a lucky move because seven years later Sarah is still at Northern and is now a qualified train driver, earning £55.5K a year with an employer who goes out of their way to support working parents like her. “I was in the right place at the right time,” she says.

It was shortly after starting as a conductor that Sarah started thinking about applying to be a train driver. “Driving is in my blood,” she says. “It’s something I like doing. I don’t like staring at four walls. I’m not built to work in an office 9 to 5. Train driving is a really responsible job and there are strict rules to follow to keep everyone safe, but you are out in the countryside. There is that element of freedom.”

When a position came up in Newcastle in 2016 – something other drivers had told her didn’t happen often – she applied and got the job. She hasn’t looked back since. “It’s the best move of my life,” she says. “I wish I had joined the railway industry sooner.” She admits, however, that her previous experience as a driving instructor helped prepare her.

Sarah did a six-month training course which she really enjoyed, saying it was broken down into bite-sized chunks. Then she did on the job training with a “fantastic” minder driver. She had to do 240 hours with the minder driver before she was fully qualified. The whole process takes three years and she had almost finished her training when she fell pregnant. 

Flexibility and support

When she went on maternity leave Sarah sat down with her managers to work out what her rota might be on her return. She was worried about how she would deal with early shifts that start at 4am and late ones that can run to 1am. The early starts are particularly problematic for childcare and her nursery was unable to flex the days her son was in nursery to suit changing shift patterns. 

Sarah was the first woman train driver from the Newcastle depot to have children. She need not have worried, though, because her managers were very supportive. They looked at what was possible and agreed a flexible full-time contract where she works 8am to 5pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays when her son is in nursery and does the early shift on Fridays [when her husband has her son] and Saturdays. Confirming that before she returned from maternity leave meant she did not stress about it before she came back. 

Sarah, who qualified soon after returning from maternity leave, is happy continuing to get more experience under her belt for now. The most challenging things she has come up against so far are breakdowns and rescues of other units. She thinks that she could maybe become a minder driver in the future, giving her experience of teaching as a driving instructor.

Sarah says repeatedly how lucky she feels. She knows that things could be very different and that she could really have struggled during the pandemic if she had remained a driving instructor. 

She thinks women are often put off a career on the railway because of the childcare issue, but emphasises that attitudes are fast changing and that flexible working is no longer taboo. It is not just about working mums either. More of the younger men want flexibility too and there are other reasons drivers might need different shifts, such as health issues. 

Sarah says her managers have already said that if she needs to tweak her rota when her son goes to school she can do so. During Covid, they also told her in advance that if her childcare bubble broke down she could take parental leave. “They spoke to me about it before so I didn’t need to worry and could focus on my job,” she says. During the first phase of lockdown her son’s nursery was forced to close down and Northern allowed Sarah to use her annual holidays to cover nursery days.

“Northern is a shining example of how things should be,” she says. “This is the beginning of a new railway era. The generation coming through all understand about having young families. Attitudes are changing.”

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