A Train Driver – Me? Never? Really?

Pauline Cawood, Driver at Leeds.

I joined the rail industry more by necessity than choice. I was planning on starting a new life on my own after many years unhappily married, but I needed to work in order to support myself. In 1995 I saw an advert in my local paper for Revenue Assistants working for a local train operator. I applied, and during the interview I was asked if I would consider being a train conductor? Not really knowing what it entailed I said yes! That’s when my journey began.

I was trained in Newcastle although I would be based at Leeds and found it fascinating, once I was “passed out” I was on my own working trains and working shifts, something I had never done before, and that was a massive shock, but, strangely enough I liked it. I was happy having days off when most people were working and enjoyed meeting different people every day. I liked the responsibility that came with the job, but at that time in my life I had very little self-confidence.

All the Drivers were men and I was wary of them as I felt that they knew more about the industry than I ever would, they had an air of superiority and I felt intimidated at times. Still, despite this I kept my head down and worked hard.

1997 was a transitional year between British Rail and privatisation; a lot of drivers were allowed to retire early or moved to different new train operators, suddenly my company found themselves with a shortfall of train drivers. The internal recruitment paper came out wanting drivers, the pay wasn’t vastly more than a conductor but the challenge was irresistible. I applied and waited for my acknowledgement, it never came. Incensed at the rudeness I approached the Driver managers and told them, days later I was invited to an interview!!

After being successful in my interview I was sent for driver training in York, I was the only female on that course, and when I thought about it I would be the 4th female driver at Leeds, one of the biggest stations in the country and only 4 female drivers.

I qualified as a train driver in 1998 and was so proud of myself for achieving something that I had never thought about or even as a conductor thought I could do, but I did and 16 years later I’m still driving trains!

Train driving is hard work maintaining knowledge, updates, performance targets and even dealing with individuals who don’t believe women can or should drive trains. How can some people in this day and age still maintain those Victorian beliefs is beyond me, but they do and I think there will always be that element of sexism that is inherent in the industry.

I remember when I qualified for driving, it meant an increase in salary and an “old hand driver” saying to me that I “should not be getting the same money as the men, and should give the difference to my partner” a quick four letter word and ending in OFF shut him up! (my confidence had grown by now) but despite his laughs, I knew he meant every word.

Being one of 4 also meant that driving trains made you the focus for comments from the public too, I’ve had passengers say they wouldn’t get on a train with a woman driving, lip reading “it’s a woman” became a forte of mine, and then the general rude comments from people, mostly men it has to be said. Women on the hand are generally lovely, they smile, praise and like to see the sisterhood holding our own.

A big part of daily life at work is taken up with my trade union work. I joined ASLEF as soon as I became a trainee driver; I had no idea what a trade union did so I decided to go along to a branch meeting. When I got there I was the only woman there, surprise, surprise. I had no idea what was going on, why are people standing up to talk, why are these men shouting at each other and then applauding themselves???? The one thing I did understand is that something clicked with in me, I knew I wanted to become an active part of this branch and the union. I was encouraged by my Branch Secretary and local rep at the time Nicky Whitehead. Nick supported me when I went for the Health & safety position, he allowed me to do what I thought was best and guided me when I went off course, but always made himself available for advice.

Since joining the industry as a person who felt that nobody wanted to hear, I have become a very confident, articulate and strong woman, my journey hasn’t been easy, but I have always had the support of ASLEF, Nicky Whitehead and colleagues, and most importantly my beloved partner Steve, who is a driver at Leeds too.

I am currently the Branch secretary at Leeds for the biggest branch in ASLEF with over 400 members.

I am chair of Drivers Company Council

Branch Equality Rep

I have held various positions within ASLEF, and hope to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

I have done some work with my employers trying to raise the profile of women in the industry and recruitment. I believe, that gender stereotyping starts at a very young age, and if we can dispel that myth at primary school level, the future could be one where its accepted that women can do exactly the same work as men without question or comment.

We now have approximately 15 female drivers at Leeds, some are raising their family and with flexible working have still got their career too. Things are changing for women, but there is still a lot to do.