The train drivers’ champion…

Mick Whelan

The inevitable shift work is a deterrent. Whelan acknowledges: “We are a 24 hours a day, seven days a week industry. That puts an awful lot of people off.”

Age is also a factor - it’s not just about gender and ethnicity, but also youth. According to ASLEF’s own study, the average age of someone coming into the industry now as a train driver is 36, and Whelan is keen to get youth back into the industry.

“We’re out there campaigning to go beyond modern apprenticeships, creating real processes possibly along the old Youth Training Schemes whereby people come in for 18 months, multi-task, and find out where their career map lies, whether it is in engineering, operations, retail.”

Yet Whelan recognises that would probably generate very few train drivers.

“With my slightly cynical head on, the HR functions look at the cost. It’s very expensive to train a train driver, and it takes a long time.”  Recruiting later in life, on the other hand, means people are settled with mortgages and families, and thus the dropout rate is far lower.

“We’ve done many things, from making sure that maternity leave at some companies is up to 52 weeks of full pay, movement on adoption, fostering, family-friendly policies, primary caring and job sharing. We’ve had policies on these things for more than a decade.”

But why would you employ two people to do one job - as can be the case if all shifts are to be covered?

“If you invest heavily in the training of somebody, you don’t want to lose it. You don’t want people out there whose focus is affected on a safety-critical role.”

Even so, it’s not necessarily an easy industry to come into unless you’re prepared for long and unsociable hours. Says Whelan: “Perversely, our demographic has fundamentally changed because of the salaries we now generate and the quality time-off. We sold massive amounts of productivity to ensure that when you’re not working, it’s time clear from duty. Fortunately, we are a growing industry, and there’s always been demand for overtime.

“Our ideal world is where people come and do their core hours and enjoy their quality time with their families. Most of the time, to help the companies ensure that the trains do run and that the freight is moved, they are flexible. Now they are being paid for it, but that demand is there. People don’t see what people have to do to keep the trains running.”

But isn’t there a big health and safety implication of people doing lots of overtime?

“We do an awful lot of work on fatigue, and we do worry about it. When we gave the maximum amount of productivity, we moved away from the eight-hour day with a fixed break to ten to 11-hour days, so people could run more trains more efficiently.

“The intention was that they would only do a limited number of additional turns per week. We do work with companies to make sure people don’t do excessive hours.”

“A train driver, the day before they come to work, the day isn’t really theirs. They don’t have the same rights as someone who isn’t involved in transportation. While your family might want to do one thing, there are certain things you are prescribed from doing. Your family have to support you and what you’re doing.”

This relates back to what Whelan says about train driving being a craft rather than a profession - almost a calling, perhaps. Whelan strongly holds the view that train driving is blue collar - a term that is not necessarily fashionable in a service economy, although ‘service’ is precisely what train driving is: “White collar workers were lawyers and accountants - professions that were clearly defined.”

Even a degree is nothing compared with the ongoing assessment needed for a train driver.

“I believe that the underpinning knowledge which drivers have to have equates to more than a degree,” says Whelan, who points out that train drivers are currently graded at National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) Levels 2 or 3.

“We’re tested on it continually - obtrusively and unobtrusively - far more than any other section of society.”

Once you’re a GP, you’re a GP. But if you’re a train driver, “you have to demonstrate consistently your ability and your responsibility to do the job”.

According to Whelan, train driving is different to many jobs where skills are awarded for a specific activity: “I see us, bakers and certain other skill sets as crafts. In this day and age, there are no safety nets any more.”

Train driving is perhaps one safety net - an occupation with a low turnover and a job for life if ever there was one, even if newer recruits are starting later into their 30s. How did Whelan get to where he is today?

“I left school and went into banking, then travelled around Europe with friends, ran out of money and then came back.”

Upon his return in the early 1980s, there were accounts clerks jobs going at Willesden depot on British Rail.

“It’s one of those typical BR jokes. I turned up to the interview with a friend of mine. The interviewer asked ‘why do you want to be a guard?’ and I said ‘I don’t’. He said ‘we’ll put you on a guard’s course and transfer you to a clerical grade in a couple of weeks’. The rest is history.”

How has the job of a driver changed in the 30 years since?

Whelan avoids the heavy politics of nationalisation versus privatisation, but notes: “Salaries have increased. People underestimated the amount of resources they would need at privatisation.”

The reality was that the industry was desperate for the flexibility to run many new services. Whelan recalls: “When I was a driver at Stonebridge Park, it was a mixed traction depot. If you had the skills, one day you could be driving a freight train, the next day covering an InterCity from Euston, the next day a Class 2 Richmond-Woolwich or Euston-Watford. If they were short of someone at Rugby, you’d pick up a train at Rugby and take it back to London.”

Once the industry was split up into many constituent parts, he recalls: “You were trapped wherever you were. I was trapped in Railfreight Distribution, which was going to be the Channel Tunnel company - and the Channel Tunnel company wasn’t even open. We were sitting there with very little to do, watching the trains we used to run stand idle because we didn’t have enough people to do it.

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