Meet Woman Train Driver, Carol Burns

Friday, 3 February 2023

At London Northwestern Railway, we are committed to help reach a goal of at least 10% of train driver roles in the industry being occupied by women by 2025, and at least 20% by 2030.

Hear from our very own train driver, Carol Burns, on her career journey and the road she took to defy the stereotypes in the industry.

Carol Burns’ journey to becoming a train driver

Carol Burns train driver

My first job in the rail sector was in the ticket office. Prior to this, I really wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do career-wise. I left school at 16 and worked in retail. Entering the rail industry was more by accident than design.

I quickly outgrew my role at the ticket office after a few years, but I was reluctant to leave the industry because the job security and benefits were great. When I saw a job advert for a train driver, my husband encouraged me to apply.

I qualified as a train driver in 2002. Back then, there were only about five women drivers out of about 200 at our depot. Whilst I didn’t experience any obvious hostility in the workplace, I’d notice that, when I entered the messroom, male colleagues would fall silent. I definitely felt that I had to work harder to prove myself. Things have changed for the better since then.

After driving trains for a year, I became pregnant with my first daughter. There was a perception among some drivers, at the time, that my training had been a waste of money. They assumed I would leave to become a full-time parent. But I’ve had two daughters and I’m still here; in fact, my eldest has just started university - so not such a waste after all!

I’m from a very normal working-class background. My dad worked in warehouses and as a lorry driver during the day and my mum worked evenings. Certainly, in my generation, women train drivers were unheard of and no one before me in my family has ever worked on the railway. It was actually my dad who mentally prepared me to be resilient in a male-dominated industry. He had a great work ethic, believed in education, and always encouraged my sisters and I to do our best. Although he said that we could do and be whatever we wanted to be, he warned us that being women, we might have to work a bit harder to prove ourselves.

A perception definitely exists, among some people, that women are being given roles as drivers for the sake of diversity. But we still have to pass the same exams as men; we still have the same responsibilities and are doing the same job just as well, if not better, sometimes. There’s still also the idea that it’s a hard, physical, dirty job and that women aren’t up to the task, but these misconceptions are definitely changing. However, changes to attitudes about job roles and what makes a ‘man’s’ job versus a ‘woman’s’ job needs to happen earlier in life. That’s why it’s so important to read books to children heroing a diversity of role models and one of the reasons why I was very much supportive of UK railways sponsoring the production of My Mummy Is A Train Driver  – a book targeting 4 to 7-year-olds.

During my daughter's first year at primary school, they were doing a topic about what they wanted to be when they grew up and discussed what their parents did for work. My daughter proudly announced that her mummy was a train driver to which her teacher responded: “Are you sure you don’t mean your daddy is a train driver?” She replied: ‘No, he’s a postman, my mummy is the train driver!’ People just don’t naturally see women as train drivers. That incident wasn’t even a one-off. Someone once said to my mum: “I didn’t think they allowed women to drive trains!”

My career in the industry has progressed and I’m proud to be a role model to my girls. I’ve since become the lead Instructor for our depot. That means I have responsibility for coordinating all our training. We have a large number of trainees and it’s very rewarding to see them develop and become drivers, especially given the challenges faced over recent years, particularly with the pandemic.