Women in rail

The challenge of getting flexible working to work for train drivers who work on shifts agreed months in advance was highlighted at a Women in Rail event last week.

The urgency of the issue was underlined as women train drivers spoke about how they would have been forced to leave the industry if they had not been granted flexible working. Clare Burles, HR director at East Midlands Trains, said that it took around nine months to train a driver, which was “a huge investment”. It made no sense to lose those drivers, plus the rail industry was changing and growing, with big projects like HS2 and Crossrail. There was more emphasis on customer service. All of this made the business imperative clear for retaining and promoting women.

Sarah Swanston, operations standards and training managers at Abellio Greater Anglia, has been working in the industry for 24 years and was a train driver. She still does some driving, but this is usually no more than two hours a month. She said only 6.2% of the operational staff at Abellio are women. Two drivers work flexibly. Ten drivers or conductors work job shares, including some men. The main reason people didn’t work flexibly was problems with the rosters. The rosters covered trains running continually during the day and night and fit around drivers working a 35-hour week. Changes to anyone’s hours could affect other drivers’ rest periods. There were also legal restrictions on how many hours drivers could work in terms of picking up other drivers’ hours and there were issues around overtime. Flexible workers might get given unsociable hours, but be paid at the normal rate. Flexible working was easier in customer services where there was a two-shift roster and there was more cover available.

Swanston said: “Job shares work really well.  If people tell the roster planners in advance who is working what days so they can schedule properly it can work well. Job share partners can help each other if they have to take time off.” She added that employers needed to work with the unions to reduce opposition to flexible working.

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The conference heard that flexible working is moving forward in the rail industry, particularly for non operational jobs, but that there are still obstacles, mainly from lingering negative attitudes. A Women in Rail survey of 218 workers in the industry found most worked more than 26 hours and almost half worked more than 40 hours. Under 4% worked less than 26 hours. “We were surprised at how little part time work there was,” said Tammy Samuel, a partner in the rail team at law firm Stephenson Harwood. Of those who worked flexibly, over 45% did flexi time; 35% did some homeworking and 13% worked part time or did job shares. Only 27% have formal flexible working agreements. “The rail industry does seem to be embracing flexible working,” said Samuel. “It seems there is a way forward if we raise awareness of what has been done already and how effectively it has been done.”

The conference heard from Peter Twelftree and Kevin Turner from the transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave who said they had noticed a big drop-off in the number of female staff they had who were over 40. They were trying to address the issue through greater flexibility. Of those who asked for flexible working, 70% were women and 30% men. Career progression was possible with flexible working, they said. The head of planning worked part time and did some homeworking, for instance.

A keynote speaker at the conference was Anna Walker, Chair of the Office of Rail Regulation, who spoke about her own career path and how she had only been able to rise up the career ranks due to the support she had received in terms of flexible working. Walker has three daughters and says she wants them to benefit from flexible working too. She said when she was at the Department of Trade and Industry she had insisted that her children were her priority. “If they had told me it was full time work or nothing it would have been nothing,” she said, adding that her stance coincided with a realisation in government circles that there was a strong business case for retaining women. Walker worked part time for 15 years doing various different forms of part time working, including job shares. She eventually went full time, but said that she still insisted that if her children needed her that would be her priority. She was also part of a support network of senior part time women at work.

“There is more than a business case for flexible working,” she said, “there is a business imperative. This should not come under diversity and equality. Women are 50% of the population and are doing very well in education. Flexible working creates loyal and committed staff,” she said, adding that the ORR had benefited from being able to attract top lawyers from long-hours jobs because they offer flexible working.

Walker said her advice for women wanting to progress their careers was to help themselves, for instance, by using mentors and by looking after themselves and for everyone to make the business imperative for flexible working.

Picture credit: www.freedigitalphotos.net and tongdang

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