A love of trains can be regarded as childish; the preserve of the “anoraks”, perhaps. But being a train driver myself, the thrill some children have about riding on a train, or the fantasy of even driving one, is something that I share as an adult and a mother.
A life in rail brings with it a sense of exhilaration that only comes with travelling at speed on a feat of engineering. Although the routes are fixed, there is a sense of freedom, adventure and possibility that you simply don’t get with an office job.
Having worked in the rail industry for more than 10 years, I’m very much aware that there are lots of misconceptions about train drivers – especially female train drivers. A colleague of mine, at a different rail company, said she was once told: “I didn’t even think women were allowed to drive trains!”
To the less well informed, being a train driver may seem like an easy, unskilled job for the non-academic. In truth, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get there. It certainly did for me.
I was originally born in Zambia, and come from a family of six girls. Both my parents were professionals. My mother has two degrees: one in law and the other in social work. My father had a PhD. They probably had similar plans for me, but things changed drastically when my dad passed away when I was nine. As I grew older, I became a carer for my mother and two sisters, so there was no time for school. I taught myself how to use a computer, cook, clean, and cope with the pressures of daily life. I eventually got a job as a carer and passed my GCSEs at night school.
After that, I set my sights on becoming a train driver. But it wasn’t plain sailing. I fell pregnant with my first child and had to leave my job to raise my young family as a single parent. It took me 10 years and five tries before I finally got recruited as a mainline railway driver. I struggle with dyslexia and had to rewrite my notes every evening to help me understand and absorb information better. It certainly felt as if I had to work 10 times harder than my peers just to achieve the same thing. As you would expect, there is a lot of rigour involved in training drivers – they must be technically adept, but also fit and healthy.
In 2006, I became the first female shunter driver South Eastern Trains had ever recruited. One reason definitely accounted for this delay: shunting (the process of sorting items of rolling stock into complete trains) was manually difficult work, and so it was naturally seen as a man’s job. But I loved it. Now, nothing compares to the great sense of satisfaction I get when I arrive at a station, knowing that I have played a crucial part in getting people home safely.
With more women in roles like mine, and a concerted effort by rail companies nationwide to become fairer and more diverse, for all its imperfections and challenges, the rail industry is evolving. And although I may work in a male-dominated industry, I have never really experienced hostility or prejudice as a female train driver. Perhaps that makes me one of the “lucky” ones.
But sexism is commonplace in work environments where women are in the minority. It takes a few mould-breakers to pave the way for others to enter industries that would otherwise be off-putting because of the diversity imbalance.
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My children are proud to say that their mother is a train driver. They like watching their friends’ shocked reactions when they tell them. But these reactions show how it’s still surprising for children, open-minded as they are, to find that women can be train drivers too. We must normalise this as a job that can be done competently no matter what a person’s gender might be.
Children’s books can be a powerful way in which to communicate this, which is why it’s been important for me to play a small part in the recent production and launch of My Mummy Is a Train Driver – a picture book for primary school children that sets out to dispel the misconception that being a train driver is exclusively for men. My story is one of a few that have informed the narrative of the book.
Whenever I say I’m a train driver, people are surprised, impressed, even envious. For me, my job is normal, but for everyone else it must be an unusual and perhaps a refreshing sight. It does feel great that I’m breaking the norm. Every day I feel privileged and grateful for being in a job that I love. I’m sure not many people genuinely get to say that.
Jane Fentaman is a train driver for Southeastern. For more information on ‘My Mummy Is a Train Driver’, visit Butterfly Books