Women on the rails

If you ask anyone for a description of a typical train driver, they are probably still likely to suggest that it is a man, but things are changing and a career as a train driver has lots to offer as Lucy Saunders found out. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to her.

She has been working for London Overground Rail for almost two years and is really enjoying it. Before she had her son four years ago, she was working as a manager for a Cancer Research charity shop, having previously worked as a tv set dresser and designer. She says the job was lovely, but the pay wasn’t sufficient to cover any childcare costs so she decided to stay at home. When her son reached the age of three, though, she wanted to get back to work and the family needed the extra money.

She says she had always liked driving and trains and had looked into being a train driver before, but there had been no vacancies. She needed to find a job that paid enough to cover childcare costs and was struggling to find anything until she saw an advert for train drivers in her local paper.

Neither she nor her husband was sure it would work around childcare because of the shift work involved. Her son, however, was very enthusiastic. “He thought it was great at first, but I think I may have bored him by now,” says Lucy.

She says no particular qualifications are needed to become a train driver, but you do have to sit a series of aptitude tests, plus a formal interview and an interview with your line manager. She says her formal interview was unlike any interview she had ever had before. “It was very thorough and intense. I think they were looking to see if I could cope under pressure, for instance, and was honest,” she says.

Training to be a train driver

After successfully passing the recruitment process, Lucy was given nine months training and adds that the biggest challenge was learning all the many rules associated with being a train driver, from personal track safety to how you drive along different parts of the track. “It was quite frightening at first because it was so alien to me,” says Lucy. “Lots of train drivers have worked in the industry before, but I hadn’t.”

Trainees are also given a lot of information about safety in the first weeks. “We had a lot of information on major rail disasters and their causes, which was the source of many of the rules we were learning,” says Lucy. “It was quite shocking and made you aware of what a responsible job it is. I had never really had that kind of responsibility before, but I think if you think about the responsibility involved and worry about it it probably makes you do your job better.”

As a trainee, Lucy was paid £19K which rose to around £31K in her first year and when she reaches her second year she says the salary is around £42K. “It’s really good for a job which doesn’t require you to have any qualifications,” she says, adding that her colleagues are very supportive and there is always someone on hand to give you advice.

She admits that women are still in the minority among train drivers, but says there are a lot of women in management and administrative roles in the company so she “did not feel that strange”. She adds that the company is making a concerted effort to recruit women. In any event, a lot of her male colleagues have been very kind and supportive around her childcare issues and she says there is a lot of camaraderie and joking in the “mess room”.

Lucy says the job works fine with her childcare, although she works shifts of between six and 10 hours at a time with regular breaks. Her son goes to nursery three days a week, her mum helps out on other days and her husband looks after her son if she has to work at the weekend. “The good thing is we pretty much know what our shifts will be so I can plan ahead. It’s usually one week earlies, one week lates, but some weeks we work two weeks back to back. Our hours can change at 48 hours notice, but it’s usually only by an hour either way and it hasn’t happened yet,” she says.

She adds that the train resource managers, who manage all the drivers, are very helpful and colleagues will often swap shifts to help each other out. Because her childcare is fairly flexible, she says the shift system works well for her and means she can get days off in the week to be with her son. The company offers childcare vouchers which she is using and she has been told that it has recently announced an enhanced maternity package.

New train line

Lucy works on the new East London line between New Cross and Dalston so is driving very new trains without guards. She operates all the doors and has internal CCTV. She says she hasn’t had to deal with any serious incidents yet, such as suicide attempts. “Most drivers only face one fatality in their career,” she says. “Plus this is a very slow, urban line. We only go 40-60 miles per hour. I’ve only had a few minor incidents to deal with, but you have to be prepared.” She adds that she has direct and immediate contact with the signaller who can contact British Transport Police if there are any problems and the CCTV means there will be a recording of any incidents.

She has been working this route since January after previously covering the North London line. For the first couple of months, she was driving empty trains to test the route, which goes under the Thames. The route worked well for her when she lived in Crystal Palace, but she has recently moved to Ham so the commute to work is longer. She hopes eventually to transfer to a route nearer home.

Lucy says promotion prospects are good. She could, for instance, move up to become a train resource manager or a driver manager “if I get bored of driving”. She can’t imagine this happening any time soon, though, and obviously genuinely enjoys the driving. An added benefit is that, apart from signals, there are no traffic jams. “When I worked in tv,” she says, “I had to drive around London a lot looking for props. The traffic was a nightmare. On a train, there is really nothing much in front of you and if you stop at a signal you can often open the window and listen to the birds singing.”





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