Interview with Collette Gibson

Train Driver

How did you get into the rail industry, was it by choice or accident?

A bit of both really. I trained as a nurse but was finding my first qualified job a bit of a disillusion. I decided to take a break, fully intending to return to nursing with a fresh perspective. My brother worked for British Rail and suggested I give them a go. I applied for a job on the Gatwick Express as a steward, but was offered a job as a receptionist for the newly formed West Anglia Great Northern Railway.   Life on the railway was completely different from the NHS and I enjoyed the contrast, the camaraderie and the regular hours!  I fully intended to return to nursing but the railway drew me in.  After a while the regular hours lost their novelty and when I saw an article in the rail news about a young woman who had passed out as a train driver my interest was sparked. It appealed because it was an unusual job for a woman and so I made that my goal. Life on the railway started as a temporary job but 24 years later I’m still here.

What do you do?

Currently I am a train driver but I’ve done quite a few jobs over the years.  I started as a clerical officer being a receptionist and then an Operations Performance Analyst.  Then I joined the footplate as a trainwoman D (a guard in line of promotion to driver).  I’ve also worked on the buffet and as a Senior Conductor, and for the last 16 years as a driver.

What is a typical day?

No two days are alike.  It’s a 24/7 industry so we work earlies, lates and nights.  I can sign on or off at any time of day or night, and it’ll be different every day – it’s not a regular shift pattern.  A late could start any time after midday, and the nights can start as early as 1900 or as late as 2359, so it’s quite varied.  The earliest start in my current roster is 0402. On this job I drive to work as there’s no public transport at that time.  At work I sign on, check my kit and any last minute safety notices before taking a taxi the three miles to the depot. It takes 45 minutes to prepare the train for the day ahead. My day will usually include a couple of trips – I work long distance high speed trains not the more intense suburban services – and at some point I’ll have a break.  Jobs are generally 8 to 10 hours long.

What aspects of the job do you find the most challenging?

For me the challenge is staying on top of the ever changing rules and maintaining traction knowledge, because it’s a job where you never know what can happen.  You can go for years without a specific problem with the train or an episode of degraded working such as multiple signal failures, and the challenge is to be up to date with information that you may have learnt years ago in initial training and never used.

What do you like the most about your job/the rail industry?

Even after 16 years I still get a kick out of seeing some people’s reactions when I run into a station and they realise it’s a woman driving.  We’re still unusual, although there are more of us every year.   I like the challenge of not knowing what the day will bring.  And of course the money is good.

What made/makes you stay in the rail sector?

At first, a dogged determination to become a driver, but also the people.  On the whole railwaymen and women are a great bunch and accept you for who you are, as long as you do your job.   It hasn’t always been plain sailing but there’s something about the railway – you can’t stay away for long.  I just enjoy my job.

What do you think could be improved within the rail industry for you personally?

It’s been a hugely male dominated industry for over 200 years and, certainly from an operations perspective, it hasn’t evolved taking in to consideration the different needs of women.  A greater understanding and acceptance of women’s different role in society and acknowledgement that our priorities can be different would be a great start.  There is absolutely no reason why women cannot be train drivers and fulfill their other obligations in life.  Attitudes need to change: I think that’s the biggest barrier.   A greater acceptance of flexible working would benefit everybody, but there is a perception that it’s just for women – which it’s not.  I know more part-timers who are winding down for retirement than who want to accommodate caring responsibilities!   It would be fabulous if we could change that and have women and men enjoying a greater work-life balance.

What would you say to a young graduate considering a career in rail?

Definitely explore all the options not just the more ‘traditionally’ female roles like HR.  Join a graduate training scheme and take every opportunity you can get to try out different roles.  Women in Rail have a mentorship scheme, which is excellent because it can be really isolating being one of very few women sometimes.  Of course I’d always recommend being a train driver

What would you say is the biggest achievement of your career to date?

I have never been prouder at work than the day I got my key – which means the day I was passed out as a train driver.  Or the next day, when the train crew supervisor asked me to take a train out on my own for the first time.  I was grinning like a Cheshire cat!

What is the most rewarding thing about being a woman who has achieved a senior role in her career?

There’s an old saying on the railway that your name is not in the book until you’ve done 25 years, so I’m not quite there yet.  I am involved with the women’s network in ASLEF, my trade union, who are working with rail industry partners to try and improve recruitment and retention of female drivers.  Back in the 1990’s I had a few issues with sexist behaviour and I have been really pleased to have been told by other drivers that the battles I took up then have made a massive difference to the way they are treated now.  Even after all this time it’s nice to know I made a difference.

Do you think men and women handle leadership roles differently?

I can only speak from my experience and I would have to say yes.  Gender stereotyping plays a big part I think but it’s definitely changed on the railway as more women have come through.  In the past it must have been hard for a woman in a leadership role to command respect from a male dominated workforce, but I believe that has changed so much in the last 20 years, especially in operations.  I think women do have a tendency to avoid confrontation and be more conciliatory, and actually that’s a positive.  An assertive woman boss, that really shakes the men up!

 

Interviewed June 2015