Yesterday, at 6.30am I was sorting out the coat pegs (as you do), getting rid of coats that I haven’t fit into for at least 2 – ok, 3 – years, too tight waterproofs of the kids and a brand new ATW fleece. Underneath all of these was a handbag that I haven’t used in what felt like years, and a peek inside was like looking into someone else’s life.
The bag hailed back from my days as a train driver, and clearly by the time I left I wasn’t ready to deal with sorting all the shit out. There wasn’t anything particularly exciting in there – I had had to hand all that stuff back in when I left, but the diary, route cards and high viability vest remained, transporting me back to 2014.
I don’t talk much about why I left the railway. People are far more interested in the fact that I used to be a train driver, and there aren’t many people who are bold enough to ask about the details, and if they do, I rarely feel prepared to give them the honest answer.
The stock answer has been that it wasn’t a family-friendly job, that I never saw my kids, and that we, as a family, had to make some difficult decisions that concluded in the realisation that money didn’t make the world go round, and that we would be much happier with less money but a more present family. This is, of course, all true. The hours required of a train driver are bonkers. Your shifts can start as early as 2.30 and on a late shift can finish at 5 am, and that makes it impossible to be there for every bedtime or every morning rush. Leaving a well-paid job was indeed a massive decision, however, made much easier by the fact that we were mortgage free by then, but there are still many people who will never be able to fathom how I could give up so much money. These reasons were completely valid, but they weren’t the backbone of the decision.
When I returned to work after having my eldest I was already 3 months pregnant with Flynn, and the year that I had off was eventful to say the least. We moved from Machynlleth in Wales to Stockport when I was 7 months pregnant. The house that we were buying hadn’t gone through yet, and so in the meantime, we lived with my parents. I’d just like to say that I don’t advise any emotionally charged heavily pregnant mamas-to-be do this. It was far from harmonious, but huge parent points to my Mum and Dad for letting us (and the dogs) stay. With eye-rolling timing, the house completed when I was 38 weeks pregnant, and needed a complete renovation – rewire, damp proof, plastering – the lot. With the most incredible team on board, I managed to get things done at lightning speed (who is going to argue with a heavily pregnant woman, right?!), but my daughter still spent the first 6 weeks of her life at her grandparents. As it turned out, this was great for me – I had no idea what I was doing, and having my Mum around to guide me was such a help, but it was still a relief to move into our own home on my 30th birthday. The following months were spent in a haze wondering why our daughter cried all the time (answer – she’s a baby), battling with breastfeeding, and naturally having a tough time propping my relationship up. In a massive (last-ditch?) effort to make our relationship more solid my now husband proposed to me, and we got married 4 months later. A spanner was thrown into the works two weeks before however in the form of a surprise positive pregnancy test. At the time it left us in a daze for months, wondering how we were going to cope. Our daughter would only be 16 months old when the baby arrived. How were we going to survive having two babies when we could barely cope with one? The pregnancy thankfully was our superglue and the wedding and the forthcoming arrival signalled not so much a fresh start, but a new page.
So 3 months pregnant I returned to work – to a new boss, a new depot, a new signalling system, new colleagues and driving a mainline. You can imagine my first day nerves having to go and tell them that I was expecting another baby, but my blunt, straight talking boss was right – it was what it was. The 5 months I was in work ‘between babies’ was mostly spent wasting time – driving trains under instruction and getting familiar with the different traction and signalling was all useful, but it was no secret that my manager didn’t really see much point in it all if I would be taking another year off.
When my son splashed beautifully into the world life was good. He was a happy baby, and I felt much more relaxed and confident with my parenting decisions. The months flew by, some days easier than others, often inexplicably difficult, and when the time to return to work came round, I was not really looking forward to the drastic change of lifestyle to the one I had been living for the last 2 and a half years.
Starting back at work felt like starting again, but at the deep end. I had so much to learn, but equally, I had two little people on my mind too, including one who refused to sleep past 4 am. I was amazed how different things were from the Cambrian branch line which I had loved driving and found so easy. The line that I had learned to drive on seemed to be embedded in my mind and the new Cardiff to Manchester line was foreign. A longer time in the driving seat than I was used to pushed my concentration levels out of my comfort zone and things started getting on top of me. The shifts were also long, and I had a 1 1/4 hour commute each way. Along with this, I had a huge amount of annual leave to take, which meant that during my retraining period I took an entire month off, plus odd days and weeks here and there.
I have had a long and muddled history of anxiety and depression which I have mentioned in previous blogs, and I knew that I was suffering, but I ignored it. Understandably the railway have very strict rules on drugs and alcohol, even down to strong painkillers, so I knew that antidepressants weren’t an option, and I certainly didn’t feel comfortable talking to my boss about it, so I continued on. It wasn’t long until I made a mistake.
Freshly out driving by myself without an instructor, I drove from Crewe to Manchester. Fine. On the way back to Crewe I didn’t brake in time for a station, and I overshot the platform. It was no disaster. I was able to speak to the signaller and drive the train back into the station. But it shook me up. I knew that when I should have braked my mind was at home with my kids, exhausted from another bad night with my youngest. Luckily one of the more sympathetic driver managers was at the station, and I knew that I finally had to come clean about my depression. I was emotional, but he was really kind. It was decided that I would be put back under instruction for a period of time, and I was grateful. I felt stupid for having made such a mistake, but aside from my pride, I was concerned about why I had made the error.
Being with an instructor made me feel safe again. I still wasn’t really addressing the depression, but my confidence grew as the weeks passed. Until my next mistake. This time I had a driver instructor with me and it was a lot more serious. I had a SPaD – signal passed at danger – I had gone past a red light braking just as I passed it. My instructor and I were both shook up. How had this possibly happened? We weren’t chatting, the signal had good sighting, our speed was correct, it just didn’t add up in our minds. I’m not sure how long we were stuck just passed that signal for, but it felt like a lifetime. Neither of us were allowed to drive the train, so we had to wait for a relief driver to turn up and take the over before we went back to our depot where we were split up, questioned and made to wait for routine drug and alcohol tests. When we were eventually allowed to leave, my stomach was in knots. How could I recover from this? How had the mistake happened? Was it my depression? The kids? Had I changed so much as a person in the past 2 and a half years that I was no longer suitable for the job?
I couldn’t ignore my depression anymore and went to see my doctor who prescribed me medication and counselling. I sat at home for days with my phone next to me as I was sure that I would get a phone call from my boss. Eventually, it was decided that the SPaD wouldn’t be on my record as I was under instruction, and my instructor had somehow blagged himself back into work, and as more time passed it became harder to imagine myself back there. I was petrified of what my next mistake would be – and what the consequences of my last mistake could have been. I catastrophised the whole matter, and ended up in my own personal hell – I had a job, we needed the money, but I couldn’t do that job – so where did that leave us?
Luckily my union representative was incredible. He kept in touch with me, listened to what I had to say and supported me 100%. After many hours of crying, and some very difficult conversations with my husband I was finally able to vocalise the fact that I didn’t want to be a train driver anymore. The bottom line was that no amount of money was worth doing a job that put so much fear into you, that made you so full of dread and depression. Once I had made that decision a small weight lifted from my chest, and although I was still employed by the railway I knew that I would never have to drive a train again. The relief was immense. The union continued to back me and about 4 months after I passed the signal, 4 months of sitting at home with my stomach and mind in knots, I left the railway.
Life was not to be straightforward as I threw myself into opening a small business. I still struggle massively with depression and anxiety which is ‘controlled’ by the highest dose of antidepressant. I drink far too much, and eat all the wrong things in an attempt to comfort myself – I am by no stretch of the imagination ‘fixed’, but my wonderful ex-sister in law said a few months ago ‘I can’t remember when I last saw you so happy’, and I’ll take that! Also having the most amazingly supportive husband and family around me helps more than they will ever realise.
Do I miss the railway? Not a single bit. I feel very lucky to have experienced it, to have been part of the Cambrian family, to have seen some of the most breathtaking sunrises and sunsets up the Welsh coast, to have been the first woman in the UK to have driven under the ERTMS signaling system, to have earned a wage that now allows us to live in a lovely home without a mortgage, and to have worked in a job that impressed both my kids. I even miss a few of my old colleagues, but the decision we made as a family for me to leave the railway was the best and most suitable one I could have ever made.
Sometimes you just do have to make some really difficult decisions, and you never know, they might be the best ones you could ever make.