Train driver Colette Gibson talks about being one of 4.8%.
Growing up I always wanted to be a nurse – a very stereotypically girls career. Even when, in my early twenties, I joined the railway I joined in the clerical grade it never occurred to me to think about train driving. Then one day I read an article in a trade newspapers about a young woman who had just qualified as a train driver and I thought “I can do that. That’s what I want to do.” Then that became my career goal. I was attracted to the idea that there were so few women in the grade, which made it a challenge. Even today, 25 years after I read that article, still only 4.8% of train drivers are women.
There is a perception that train driving is a man’s job but that really is not the case. In the past there may have been heavy lifting, shovelling coal or moving coupling equipment, but that is certainly no longer the case. Modern trains no longer require physical strength to operate them and are equipped with many safety devices and on-board computers to help you out. In spite of this it’s not difficult to imagine why there are still so few women driving trains. For over 200 years the rail industry has been dominated by men and that is not going to change overnight. But things are changing slowly.
Women in Rail is a network created to help change the perception that the rail industry as a dirty, heavy industry and to encourage and support more women to work in every area of the railway. It holds seminars, networking and mentoring to rail women. It also works closely with my trade union, ASLEF – the Train Drivers Union. ASLEF have been proactive for a number of years to create a more ‘female friendly’ work place.
They have done research about why women don’t consider train driving as a career option and have used this to work positively with rail companies, to encourage the recruitment of more women in to the grade. Slowly the numbers are rising. In 2009 the number of women train drivers was around 2.5%. It has nearly doubled in the last seven years which is a great achievement. There’s only about 30 women freight drivers nationally but the more women are seen at the front of the train, the more others will be inspired to follow in their footsteps. That’s how I started!
A typical day for a train driver doesn’t exist. You never know what you’ll come up against and part of the appeal – and the training – is to be ready for anything, which could be bad weather, signal or track failures, a passenger taken ill or a broken down train. We work 24/7, starting and finishing at any time – it’s not a fixed shift system. Typically a shift could be 8 to 10 hours. Work involves preparing your train for the day, ensuring it is safe and in working order, as well as the actual driving. Some drivers work intense suburban services, I work long distance, high speed trains. Others work on the underground system or on light rail. It’s important to keep on top of the continually changing rules and regulations and, though you don’t need any particular engineering qualifications or ability, you are trained to be able to get your train moving if it breaks down.
It’s an exciting job and the terms and conditions, benefits, pay and pension are attractive. It would be great to see more women being able to enjoy this, and there’s nothing to stop them. As an industry we need to reach out more to women and show them that a career in rail is for them and that train driving particularly, is very attractive and ‘doable’ for women. It’s no longer a man’s world – or it shouldn’t be.