The changing face of the rail industry

Judith Dickinson has seen a lot of changes since she started working in the rail industry 20 years ago and says her company Northern Rail has really embraced family friendly working in recent years in an effort to attract and retain women. She spoke to

Judith Dickinson has seen a lot of changes since she started working in the rail industry 20 years ago and says her company Northern Rail has really embraced family friendly working in recent years in an effort to attract and retain women.

One proof of that is that the company will be taking part in the first Manchester Workingmums LIVE event which brings family friendly employers together with experienced, skilled women who want flexible jobs.

The rail industry has not always been big on diversity, though. It is typically male-dominated and when Judith had her son Conor 11 years ago she only took six weeks off for her maternity leave which she says was standard at the time. Her then husband was not working at the time and she was breastfeeding at night when she went back to work.

The baby was waking up every half hour so she only got “snatches of sleep”. She was doing 11-hour shifts as a train driver and her husband would look after the baby, but was suffering from depression so all the housework was left for her to do. “It was really tough,” she says. “I was not coping and suffered post-natal depression. I was existing from minute to minute.”

In addition to this, the birth was fairly traumatic and she had to have a lot of stitches. She had had to work while heavily pregnant. It's different now – as soon as women say they are pregnant they get taken off driving responsibilities, she says.

At seven months pregnant and rather large, she overshot a station on one occasion because of leaves on the line, a common occurrence. She had to walk through the train to get it back to the station and some customers saw her and complained, saying her pregnancy was the reason she had overshot the station.

“There were quite a lot of comments and complaints,” she says. “They all thought it was because I was pregnant rather than due to leaves on the line. The company took me off driving as a result and gave me an office job. I was quite grateful. It was not the easiest of pregnancies and you never know if you are going to go into labour early.”

One downside was that a male driver whose wife was expecting around the same time complained that he should be taken off driving responsibilities too in case his wife went into labour! “It caused a bit of bad feeling,” says Judith.

She says attitudes have changed as more young people have come into the industry since younger men tend to want to be more involved with their children. This change is reflected in the company's paternity leave. Men now get two weeks' paternity leave whereas 11 years ago the industry norm was just one day off.

A couple of years after her son was born, Judith separated from her husband and moved from Barrow in Furness to Wigan and changed to an office role, but still full time as always. Her ex-husband looked after her son at weekends and they started to get along better. Eventually they got back together, but it didn't last and they separated again last year.

Judith says one of the things that helped her through in the early days was her son's nursery. “They were very flexible and helpful and helped me build up a support network as I didn't have family to call on,” she says. During holidays she split childcare with her husband and her mum in Cumbria.

Secondary school

Conor has just started secondary school and that has brought big changes and lots of homework. He has had a few problems settling in because of family issues, says Judith, but she says that her manager has been “brilliant” and very understanding.

She is now Operations Standards Specialist for Engineering Depot Operations dealing with safety issues around moving trains into depots. She says she had alerted her manager last year that she might split up for her husband and might need some time off. “He said let me know and when it all kicked off he said 'do what you need to do'. He found out I was struggling with commuting [she has to travel around as she covers a wide region] and childcare and was thinking of applying for a more local job, even though I didn't really want to. We had a heart to heart and he said tell me what you need and we came up with some solutions,” she says.

She now works from home once a week so she can take Conor to school that day and she can tailor her agenda so if she has meetings in the York office they are not at the end of the day so she can be back to pick Conor from his dad who has him after school some days but has to be at work by 6.30pm. “My manager is a dad and understands, but there has been a lot of change in the rail industry in general. Northern Rail is doing a lot of work on diversity and inclusion,” she says. “A women's group has been set up to support women coming back from maternity. There is a lot of advice and support available. I'm hoping to get involved with that. It's totally different from how it was.”



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