When a friend first suggested that Laura MacDonald apply to become a train driver, she thought the idea was absurd.
She couldn’t even drive a car, let alone a train, and getting through the rigorous assessment process seemed a terrifying prospect.
But, as the months went on, she couldn’t get the idea of driving a train out of her head.
‘I loved being a nurse when I first started out and thought I’d do it forever,’ she says.
‘But after six years I began to find it increasingly stressful. I worked in a hyper-acute stroke unit at St George’s Hospital in London, and it was full-on – in the first year of the job I’d lost 2 stone from stress, I’d work 12-13 hours a day and was beginning to suffer from burnout.’
A chance meeting with a train driver called Polly changed everything. The pair got chatting on a night out, and Laura was fascinated to hear about Polly’s day-to-day life on the tracks of London.
Quickly, Polly became a close friend, and regularly told Laura what a fantastic train driver she’d make, too, because of how good she was at keeping a cool head.
‘It wasn’t a career that had ever crossed my mind,’ says Laura.
‘It’s such a male-dominated industry and I’d never been particularly into trains, although as a child I loved standing under the railway bridge in my hometown, waving at the trains to try and get them to beep at me.’
But the more she thought about it, the more Laura loved the idea, and tentatively began the application process. When she found out she’d been accepted for assessment, she was over the moon.
‘I couldn’t believe it was really happening,’ she says. ‘A few of my friends and family found it a bit weird and questioned why I’d want to give up nursing, a good career I’d worked so hard for. But I felt so sure I was doing the right thing.’
Just 5.4% of Britain’s 19,000 train drivers are women, and of the 15 people accepted on Laura’s cohort for assessment, three were women.
Assessments were gruelling: potential drivers need to prove they can focus on two things at once with psychometric tests, and that they have the right temperament for the job with a personality test.
There are also rigorous concentration tests, logical and numerical reasoning tests, mechanical aptitude tests and one-and-a-half-hour-long interviews.
‘I was so nervous because I wanted the job so badly,’ says Laura.
‘But I think being a nurse prepared me well for keeping a cool head under pressure. I studied obsessively but was convinced that I wasn’t going to pass. But on the last day the assessor shook my hand and said, “From one driver to another, well done, you’ve passed,” I was shell-shocked.’
For the next two years, Laura would undergo rigorous training, including 900 hours of classroom teaching and 225 hours on the track with an instructor. It wasn’t all smooth sailing – Laura sprained her ankle badly and was ‘off-track’ for six weeks.
But luckily the company were supportive and she made a full recovery.
In May this year, almost three years after submitting her initial application, Laura became a train driver.
‘I can’t tell you how much I love my job,’ she says.
‘I go to work every day with a smile on my face. I love being kept on my toes, and that feeling like you’re your own boss – if anything goes wrong you need to deal with it yourself. Then there’s the camaraderie between drivers. You see the same faces, and I’m always ready to wave at drivers I know.’
Laura learns one route at a time, and currently drives a train from Selhurst, Surrey to London Victoria. ‘I was petrified the first time I drove by myself,’ she says. ‘It was a short trip, just 55 minutes, but I loved it.’
Surprisingly, it’s not the constant concentration or the weight of responsibility that Laura finds most challenging. ‘Becoming confident about doing announcements over the tannoy has been tough,’ she says.
‘I’m shy and hate talking over the phone, so at first I would stumble or giggle. But I’ve got a lot better – I try to be funny or make the passengers aware I’m also a human being.’
Laura has a couple of female train driver friends, but the majority of her colleagues are male.
‘Most of the blokes are older and quite fatherly,’ she says. ‘We go for drinks and all get on so well – it’s a family feeling. It’s not a laddy culture, but there is a bit of banter.’
The majority of Laura’s friends have been supportive of her change in career.
But there are a few raised eyebrows when she tells new people what she does for a living.
‘People are surprised as it’s such a male-dominated job,’ she laughs. ‘One or two of my friends have made jokes about me being a stereotypical lesbian because I’ve got cats and a motorbike, and I drive trains.’
But there’s one person in particular who thinks Laura’s job is amazing. ‘My three-year-old niece loves telling people her Auntie Laura drives trains, and gets so excited when she sees one,’ says Laura.
‘I always give kids a beep when I see them from my window, just like the drivers did for me when I was little.’
Laura hopes more women will choose to go into careers traditionally seen as masculine. ‘To women who want to go into male-dominated roles, do it,’ she says.
‘Driving a train is an amazing job. I get so excited when I’m waiting for a train and there’s a female driver. You can do anything a man can do. There’s nothing to stop us doing what we want.’
Britain’s first female train driver
Laura found the world of train driving to be a warm and welcoming place, but things haven’t always been so good for female drivers.
When the late Karen Harrison became the first female train driver in the UK in 1978, she was subjected to a decade of physical and verbal harassment from colleagues who disapproved of her presence in a masculine world.
‘Ten years of hell. It’s a bit tough when you’re only a teenager and you’re hit by this gigantic tidal wave of hate,’ she said.
‘To a lot of the men, I was the proverbial turd in the swimming pool. Every day I walked into the mess room I’d be s**tting myself, but strutting about pretending not to be. I couldn’t let them create no-go areas for me; that would’ve established a precedent and we couldn’t have that – it would’ve been the beginning of the end.’
Karen campaigned heavily to improve life for women on the tracks and rose through the ranks of the train drivers’ trade union ASLEF, before eventually retiring to study law at Oxford University.
‘I find studying hard,’ she said. ‘But it’s easier than driving trains. It’s hard to get too stressed about exams when you’ve experienced brake failure approaching a red signal, especially when you can see another train crossing the junction in front of you.’
Female train drivers: the facts
Women account for just 5.4% of train drivers in the UK, up from 4.2% in 2012.
ASLEF, the train drivers’ trade union, has placed pressure on rail companies to improve diversity with specific recruitment campaigns for women.
The average train driver salary is £47,101, and perks include free or heavily discounted rail travel, long holidays, flexible working hours and decent pensions and maternity packages.