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They were talking about railway careers on a brand new line for London, and, in particular, the big rewards of being a train driver. Why are you looking at me? I thought. I’m a lady. If women drove trains then it was the first I’d heard of it.
In fact, the very first woman to become a train driver in the UK was Karen Harrison in 1979, a real pioneer who remained one of the few for many years. It’s one of the careers which has struggled to break from a tradition of employing white middle-aged men. Even now, just 6% of train drivers in the UK are female, 5% are from ethnic minority backgrounds; only 10% are under 35.
But that’s all changing. The value of women drivers is increasingly being recognised in the rail industry as a way of making sure the workforce better reflects the mix of customers – and because women are seen to have the all-important skills of concentration, patience and responsibility. Salaries rise to well over £40k. There are good holidays and flexible work patterns for a better work/life balance than the average nine to five. What’s not to like?
I’d always wanted to do something out of the ordinary. I didn’t want to be sitting at a desk all day – and this was the complete opposite. Train driving sounded like a really exciting job. And it just felt like it would be amazing to be involved with a service that was an essential part of so many people’s lives each day. MTR Crossrail is a new train operating company set up in 2014 to oversee and run the new Elizabeth line through London: 41 stations, 700 services day, 200 million passenger journeys a year.
I applied to become an MTR Crossrail driver in October 2016 when I was 24 – and didn’t think I’d get anywhere; being young and female I thought it was just a pipe dream. At the time I had a two year old and another baby on the way, and hadn’t even thought about the details of childcare at the time. It just seemed so unlikely. You need support, and I had the network, with my husband and mum-in-law all stepping up brilliantly. To consider train driving as a mum you need a plan. The reality is you’re always going to need childcare – and with shift patterns you at least have some flexibility to work with, the chance to have longer blocks of time with children and family and you’re not locked into only being around in the late evening or at weekends. And as children grow up, you will have a long-term career you can be proud of.
Once I got the nod, what followed was a whole series of tests: psychometric, medical, hearing, reading assessment, test-driving. They were quite intense, but fun, and each time I passed I just wanted it more, wanted to know what was coming next. I started on the Training Driver Apprenticeship in August 2017 – and now [March 2018] have just two more months to go.
Apprenticeships are still fairly new in the rail industry. MTR Crossrail has funded more places than other train operators – 200 so far. The 18-month apprenticeship – a City & Guilds Level 2 NVQ Diploma in Rail Services (Driving) qualification – runs alongside the company’s normal Train Driver Programme and gave me the chance to learn on the job and earn at the same time. It was a split between classroom study focused on knowledge of the rules and principles of the railways and being in the depot getting to know the trains inside and out. There’s an assumption that this is what working in the railways is all about, the mechanics, the engineering. But while you need to know the main components and you’re willing to learn the essentials, there’s no need to get involved in fixing anything. That’s for the experts. You just need to be able to report problems. So now I need to complete 175 hours driving alongside an instructor, and then it’s a four-day driving test to get my licence.
What’s surprised me most has been the number of women involved, as trainees and in the workplace in general. Far from being a masculine culture there’s a real sense of equality: we’re all in it together as a team and there are always people around to talk to and provide support. Compared with the national averages, the profile of MTR Crossrail train drivers now shows that 11% are women, 25% ethnic minority and 47% are under 35.
If all goes to plan, I’ll be driving on the Elizabeth line from the end of this year. It still sounds daunting put like that. But I know I’ve been given all the knowledge and skills I need and I’ll be ready. After all, if men can do it…
*Nazmeen Ishfaq is a trainee train driver with MTR Crossrail.