After Paula Walters drops off her three-year-old daughter at nursery, she embarks on the kind of working day that would probably surprise most people.
She doesn’t go on to an office, or to serve in a shop. She goes to London and back – twice – because Paula, 34, is a train driver for East Midlands Trains
“I can’t think of a better way to travel than by train,” she says, “and I can’t think of a better way to earn a living than by driving one.”
Originally from Weymouth, Paula was working as a financial advisor when personal circumstances brought her to Derby in 2008.
Unfortunately, the financial crisis that had just erupted meant that there were no jobs in the financial services sector in Derby at that time. So I had to find other employment, and every cloud has a silver lining. I looked around and, somehow, working in the railway industry was something that I felt I might enjoy. I applied to East Midlands Trains.”
Paula initially found a job as a platform despatcher at Nottingham station. She was promoted to supervisor, and then her sights switched from seeing trains off on their journeys to actually driving them.
“I applied to become a depot train driver at Nottingham. It was a four-month training course, and you got only two attempts at the test. I failed my first attempt, so the retake was a nervous time, but the training is first-class, and second time around I passed.
“That meant that I could drive trains around the depot, do light maintenance work, fuel them and prepare them for service. Then in 2010 I applied to become a mainline driver. That was a longer course – you need more traction knowledge for that job – but again the training was absolutely first-class and I passed first time.
“Of course, passing the practical tests is only part of it. You also have to be medically fit. For instance, it’s no good being a good train driver if you happen to be colour blind and can’t recognise signals.
“At the time I was the only female train driver at Nottingham, and at the time it took some of the older drivers a while to adjust. But they did, and today there are several women drivers and no one thinks it unusual.”
Does driving a train regularly between Sheffield and London ever become boring?
“If ever there is a time when I think: ‘I’m doing the same thing, day in, day out’, the feeling evaporates as soon as I sign on for each journey. It’s such a thrill to think that I’m taking hundreds of people to where they want to be, whether it’s for work or pleasure. They leave the train at the end of their journey and go their separate ways, and I often think what individual stories they must have as they spill on to the platform and away.
“But you could never be bored anyway because you have to constantly be thinking about what could happen at any moment of the journey. Passenger safety is my first priority and I have to be aware of every possible eventuality.
“Because of this you also develop a very good memory for your routes. At every move of the train, at every turn, I know where we are, which comes in very handy in fog, but is vitally important in all conditions because you have to be ready to react and you need to know what is ahead.
“As I said, safety is paramount. I can communicate with signal boxes, and in an emergency I can open out to other trains in the area, so I can alert them to potentially difficult situations. I’ve warned other drivers and signallers about things like children trespassing on the track, and, on a few occasions, adults thinking it a good idea to take a short cut down a railway line.”
When we met, Paula was taking a train from Derby to Sheffield, and on a late autumn day she had to be particularly aware of fallen foliage. “I know it can be a bit of joke that leaves on the line may delay trains, but it’s a fact. Today, we’ll be travelling through Chesterfield and in that area you have to be especially aware of foliage that can cause slippage.”
“On an average working day, I’ll travel to London twice, with perhaps a 20-minute turnaround time at St Pancras. Before each journey, though, I have to read all the daily advisory notices, telling drivers of any special circumstances on the journey. These could be planned things flagged-up that day, or maybe another driver has encountered something. We’re keeping each other fully informed all the time.”
Does being a train driver bring security? “Well, if there is such a thing as a job for life, then this is probably it. There will always be a need for train drivers. I can’t see them ever inventing driverless trains travelling at 125mph.”
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