Shooting the breeze with Virgin’s Sheila

Crewe station will lose one of its most treasured assets when manager Sheila Breeze retires after nearly 17 years working for Virgin Trains.

Breeze is regarded by the passenger operator as an ‘unsung hero’. She has run the station for four years, having ‘returned home’ following stints managing other stations.

The station itself is one of the most famous on the network, and its history is something into which Breeze has thrown herself. Her background was working in libraries, and when she told her mother that she was moving to VT, it didn’t go down well. Her mum, sadly, has passed away. But as Breeze approaches retirement, she hopes she has made her mum proud.

“I left the libraries in early 1998. My mum asked why I left. I’d been there forever and I wanted a new challenge - I could have done that job with my eyes shut.”

She saw VT advertising in the local paper for a customer services assistant. “I could do that,” was her first thought. “Mum was horrified. She asked: ‘Why go from a warm, modern building to the station?’”

Laughter is something you get a lot with Breeze. But then she loves her job and her team. She says fun is something that should be instilled into the team. Her story telling is also infectious.

“I was 100% attracted by Virgin. It certainly wasn’t the glamour of the station! They always seem happy and, well, proud.”

What did she expect?

“I thought I would be in the uniform handing over tickets and travel papers -you know, helping passengers.”

Is that what happened? “Not quite,” she laughs.

Initially Breeze underwent three weeks of heavy-duty training, including safety exams and how to dispatch trains. Then she had to shadow a member of staff for the length of time it takes to ‘pass out’ and be fully qualified. She was one of six doing this at the time.

“I shadowed for four weeks - always at Crewe. It wasn’t glamorous. The great thing was I was training for the night shift. I got to work with people who had worked on the railway for 40 years. I was trained by Bobby Charlesworth for nights. We had to deal with empty stock and in those days we did our own cleaning, too.”

This was a different era, she says. “I would be on an overbridge on my hands and knees at 0200 washing the paintwork. I was then shut in a room with a headcode list. They wanted to know that I could do it. I was tested on the headcodes because that is how we communicate and I had to know them. 1A is for Euston, 1S is for Scotland, etc. Then he would let me have a break!”

She points to a picture of her during her training with Charlesworth. He’s retired now, but she remains fond of him. “After my break I would be out the front of the station, brushing this and that. Then it would be mopping the concourse.” This was certainly not the glamour she had associated with VT.

“My biggest nightshift fright was the first time I dealt with the ‘Boat Train’. It was a slam-door train that came from Holyhead. It always used Platform 11. Most of the passengers were headed for Manchester Airport. They were usually Irish and not sober.

“So I’m this young rookie and this train, before it has stopped, the doors were flying open. Bobby said: ‘You’ve seen nothing yet.’ They would fall off the train and lie on the platform. Or they crawled. I thought we needed the police, but Bobby said step over them and make sure you dispatch the train safely.”

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