The Conversation: Train driver Suzie Nairn on avoiding sheep, holidays on the tracks and the 'Hot Chicks Special'

 

Was it your dream to drive a train?

No, I wanted to be a policewoman. I joined the force as a special police constable but it wasn't for me. Then it was my mum who said, "There's a job on the railway". I'm the first in my family to work on the trains. Before I started, I didn't even know they ran past Middlesbrough.

You've been on the job for 19 years now. Have you earnt your stripes?

When that job came up, it was rare: once people are in the role, they rarely leave. It's what we call filling dead men's shoes: you either have to do something badly wrong or die to leave the job. So I'm a newbie, really.

Do you have a favourite route?

The Whitby line. It's beautiful, so scenic. You've got a single line track – what we call a token line – so there are no other trains and the only thing you have to worry about is sheep on the line. They don't know that a train can't stop for them; they just stand there and look at you.

Do you have any insider knowledge on announcements not being what they seem? 'Leaves on the track' always makes people roll their eyes...

Everybody laughs at that, but it is really bad. You've got all these leaves and the weight of the train going over them forces the sap out, so when you put the breaks on, the train just slips. The amount of money that Network Rail spends each year to cut the trees back from the track is phenomenal.

So no little white lies?

Usually with announcements, if you tell the truth, you get a better response. People will laugh when they hear that the driver needs their break and go "Oh, they're having their dinner", but if we don't take a break and something goes wrong, it's on our heads.

Do you have favourite guards?

When I have a girl conductor, we call it the Hot Chicks Special. Everybody has different personalities. With some, you have a nice natter and you know you're going to have a good shift.

Do you find it's a very male job?

There are 32 drivers at Darlington, and there are two lady drivers. In the whole of Northern Rail, there's less than 1 per cent female drivers.

Is there any difference when you're in your uniforms?

Not with the staff, but sometimes with the passengers. It's pretty much always men who'll go, "Can you manage, pet?" or "Will you be all right putting your make-up on while you're driving?". They think they're being funny.

A sad reality of the job is people under the trains. Is that something you've had to deal with?

I've had to assist in a fatality and walk past the body, but it was dusk so you couldn't really see much. If it happens to someone at the station, whoever's close to them will text and say, "Do you want to go for a drink?" and we all pull together. It's never a nice thing.

Do you take your holidays by train?

I'm off on Thursday, for my birthday, to Nairn, which is my namesake, between Aberdeen and Inverness. I'm going to travel all the way up to Scotland on the East Coast line. I was lucky as I was one of the last ones to get British Rail privilege tickets. It's great, but sometimes, the last thing you want to do on your day off is get on a train.

Biography

Suzie Nairn has worked for Northern Rail for close to 19 years, first as a conductor and then, for the past five and a half years, as a driver. She lives in Newcastle and is based at the Darlington depot

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