Hugs, surprise and the best seat in the house: Life as a female train driver

Chelsea Gipson aboard one of the trains she drives Image copyright LNER

When 28-year-old Chelsea Gipson tells people she's a train driver, she gets some surprising reactions.

"A lot of the time, women tend to say, 'oh that's brilliant' and occasionally give me a hug. But sometimes men are a bit like, 'really? Is that safe?'"

Chelsea's in the front seat for London North Eastern Railway and mainly does the Leeds to London route - but drivers like her aren't common.

Most are male and predominantly over 35.

In fact, according to the trade union Aslef, only 6.5% of drivers across England, Scotland and Wales are women.

But the union hopes that will change. This week it launched a campaign to try to close what it says is a "glaring" gap between the numbers of men and women entering the job.

'I think they expect an older guy'

Chelsea told Radio 1 Newsbeat she sometimes feels like she's not taken seriously.

"Some people's reactions would be like 'Oh - so they just take anyone on now then?'"

"But once you're in, you're not a female driver or a male driver - you're just a driver and you've got the respect."

She's also one of the youngest in the job, with only 15% of the train driving workforce younger than 35.

She says it can make things interesting when it comes to dealing with train enthusiasts - who are predominantly older males.

"Sometimes when you're pulling into a station you can tell that they don't know whether to take a picture or not because you're a young female and they feel a bit awkward!

"Some male drivers say 'Oh, no one ever thanks us for getting in on time.'

"But actually, a lot of passengers have knocked on my door and said 'thanks very much' - maybe because I have an approachable face!"

Image copyright Chelsea Gipson
Image caption Chelsea says it was a proud moment when she qualified.

'A train driver is a train driver, regardless of gender, sexuality, religion or race'

Union secretary Mick Whelan says they've been working with train companies to make improvements.

"We've been pushing for more part-time and flexible working - it's been a barrier to women coming into our industry".

And Chelsea thinks that could help: "realistically it's not a 9 to 5 job. A lot of women still want to be able to do the family things."

LNER - the company Chelsea works for - won the Highest Gender Balanced and Diverse Workforce Award at the 2019 Women in Rail Awards.

People Director Karen Lewis says the company's been working hard on making improvements.

"You've got to break down the stereotypes. Trains in the past have always been seen as boys' toys, but who doesn't love trains?"

'The best seat in the house'

Chelsea tells Newsbeat she thinks things will change a lot over the next ten years.

"Some girls don't dare put themselves forward because they feel like it has to be a man and people are going to judge them.

"I was the opposite - so it was a very proud moment when I qualified."

Image copyright LNER
Image caption Chelsea drives these trains for London North Eastern Railway from Leeds to London

"The shift patterns are pretty crazy and we work all hours throughout the day and the night."

But, she says, it's worth it.

"It's definitely the best seat in the house, being up the front, and personally I like being on my own.

"Every day is a learning day. That's a reason I went for the job, so I could keep my brain ticking.

"One of my favourite parts of the track is between Doncaster and Stevenage - because it's just so open and long.

"You can see for miles ahead, you see the trees change and the snow and the fields bloom and then the crops being cut.

"That's another thing I love about the job - it's quite therapeutic."

And Chelsea doesn't feel too put out when people seem shocked to see her up the front.

"It's just a nice surprise for passengers!"

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