Part 3: Twenty Years as a Railway Guard

Part 1 Part 2

by Helena Wojtczak

Working on trains without toilets it was essential to find one during my break. The law states that toilets, hot water, soap, towels and sanitary disposal facilities must be provided, and must be separate from those used by the public or the opposite sex. BR ignored this law.

At my home depot there were toilets within the carriage cleaners' accommodation, which was open between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. I, however, worked shifts covering 24 hours. Also, guards were rostered to take meal breaks in any one of twenty-one depots, plus we had turn-arounds at a further four stations.

Only two locations complied with the law and I was forced to use public conveniences, which were always dirty, usually vandalised, and frequently out of order. At one location, Fratton Yard, new accommodation for train crew had been built in the 1970s - without female toilets. I had to use the gents'. The train crew supervisor would clear the men out and stand guard outside until I emerged. This made me feel very self-conscious and embarrassed, not only because he was listening to me, but also because male staff would be fidgeting at the doorway waiting impatiently to be let in.

At some locations I was led by an embarrassed junior railman into a dusty and cobwebby cupboard under the stairs, with an ancient lavatory pan unused for decades. Of course there was never any paper or a washbasin. Sometimes there wasn't a seat and in some cases the cubicle door was missing. At other places I was expected to ask for a key to a special toilet put aside for me within the public toilets. Often my request was made in a room full of male station staff, who took the opportunity to make vulgar and embarrassing remarks.

All of these makeshift solutions were illegal, and I submitted many reports to my manager, but over the months and years very little was done.

When I was 23, I was elected as a staff representative and was also trained as the health & safety representative for guards at my depot. I was probably the first female guard to fill these positions. While this gave me the chance to pursue the question of toilet facilities for female train crew, it also led to BR management's branding me a 'troublemaker', an epithet I was unable to shake off for the rest of my career. I found my two-year stint as a staff representative so stressful that I wept tears of relief when it was over and never again stood for election.

MANAGEMENT-STAFF RELATIONS

The main reason why a staff representative's job is so stressful is the animosity that existed between 'staff side' and 'management side'. They were like warring factions: neither side would give an inch unless forced to. No railwayman would perform any task that was not part of his job description, nor work one second past his time. Being as awkward as possible was a stance many railwaymen took pride in. 'Management' was a word spat out in tones of disgust by many of my colleagues. Anyone who didn't hate management was treated with suspicion and called a 'boot-licker' (or worse). The worst offence a railway worker could commit against his colleagues was to work during a strike. One ex-steam driver at Wimbledon Park had done so in 1955. Twenty-three years later he was still 'in Coventry' for being 'a scab'.

A manager would only call an individual into his office to reprimand him or her, and so it was standard practice to refuse an interview with any manager without having a staff representative present.

In common with my colleagues I received no praise or encouragement from management; indeed, I was thanked only once in twenty years. A man attempted to leap out of my train onto the multiple tracks approaching London Cannon Street in the rush hour. At personal risk to myself, I managed to grab his sweater and, clinging on desperately until my knuckles bled, somehow managed not only to prevent him from jumping out, but to haul him back inside the train and shut the door before it got knocked off by another train. My written report met with stony silence and only after writing another letter, pointing out that I had averted a serious, possibly fatal, incident, did I receive some small recognition: a customer care certificate and a cheque for £25.

RAILWAYMEN AND WOMEN

It was customary for guards to bitch behind one another's backs by writing insulting graffiti on brakevan walls. The introduction of female staff brought in a new dimension: sex. Soon, every brakevan was filled with obscene drawings and writings. At first these were about me, and then about each new female guard that qualified.

While there was little overt hostility from guards or drivers, many of them also commented that being a guard wasn't a woman's job. They cited the nightwork, the environment and the physicality as reasons why women should not be guards. They seemed oblivious that female carriage cleaners also worked nights, shared the same environment as train crew and performed heavier physical labour than us.

Carriage cleaning, incidentally, was the standard punishment for members of train crew who'd been found guilty of a serious misdemeanour, and was only slightly preferable to being sacked.

My relationships with colleagues of either sex were fraught with difficulty. At first, the only women I came into contact with were carriage cleaners, and their resentment was made crystal clear. They were always in groups and I was an outsider.

Occasionally I overheard various comments of the 'who does she think she is?' variety, making it clear what they thought of me. Although I had much on-duty companionship and many long, intimate conversations with fellow guards and drivers, it was impossible to progress workplace camaraderie into off-duty friendships. Men who were married or attached could not socialise even platonically with a woman; bachelors would only want to go out with me if a physical relationship was on offer.

I received many lecherous propositions when alone with individuals, and in some cases physical touching. One driver based at Windsor - a man forty years my senior - touched my breasts in the crew room at Staines, and as an automatic reflex my hand flew up and slapped his face. A week later my manager called the (female) cleaning supervisor and myself into his office. He did not say why she was there, but her presence led me to think that the meeting was about my obtaining a key to the cleaners' toilets. To my astonishment, he produced a letter from the Windsor driver, in which the man complained of my assaulting him. I was given no opportunity to explain; the manager ranted on that he'd always known that employing 'females' was 'a big mistake'. Any more complaints and I'd be 'out the door'. On the way out the cleaning supervisor murmured under her breath that being a guard was 'no job for a woman'.

Not long afterwards, a driver caught me unawares while I was screwing down a handbrake in his cab, trapped my head by pressing his hand on the back of my head, and stuck his tongue down my throat till I nearly retched. I was very upset but there was no way that I could possibly have put in a complaint.

TOILETS (PART II)

After three years of fruitlessly raising the problem of the lack of toilets with BR and the NUR, we were still in deadlock: I wouldn't leave the job, nor would I cease writing letters of complaint. BR failed to provide proper facilities for women, and the NUR instigated committees and working parties to investigate. Their machinations took forever: I was always being told that they were waiting for some committee of men to complete a report of their investigations. I offered several times to give the NUR a list of places that I could write down 'off the top of my head' because I knew the locations and their facilities so well. But no, they could not accept some scribbled list by me; to be official, only a report of some traffic subcommittee would do. And so that is why, after three years of putting up with an illegal situation and endless stalling by both management and union, I started private proceedings. I complained to the Equal Opportunities Commission, which began a legal action on my behalf. BR managers forced me to withdraw these proceedings by taking me into a private office and threatening me with dismissal. The NUR condemned me for bringing in 'outsiders' (i.e. the EOC) to interfere with what was a union matter. When reminded that three years of complaint to the NUR had resulted in nothing, my Branch Secretary retorted: 'it took a century for us to get men's toilets - you cannot expect things to happen overnight!'

For trying to get the most basic sanitary facilities for women, management branded me a 'troublemaker' and I fell out with my union officers.



OUT ON THE ROAD

Being a guard wasn't ever tedious because in between stations we had things to do: logging our train's timekeeping, for example, checking our duties for the next day, filling in 'changeover of duty' slips, making announcements (when we had the equipment to do so) and, after about 1983, we were expected to trawl through the train once in a while trying to find people travelling without tickets and sell them one. (After about 1987 the managers became increasingly revenue-crazy).When there were no official duties to do there were books and papers to read, crosswords to complete, and frequently, we would chat with colleagues travelling to and from their depots either 'on the cushions' or in our brakevans. I've had four railwaymen standing shoulder to shoulder in my tiny brakevan who preferrred that to sitting in with the punters. On the whole, we had less to do with passengers than the average person would imagine.

Once in a while passengers would come to the brakevan en route just to chat. One afternoon in the summer of 1984, a man stood in the corridor by the sliding door of my brakevan and chatted with me to the end of the line. He was well-groomed, well-tanned, and obviously rich; his half-open shirt revealed a large gold medallion depicting the letter A. He opened the conversation by telling me that his father-in-law had been a railwayman at Swindon on the Great Western, leading me to think he was a wealthy train fanatic; however his demeanour was sad and during the journey he mentioned how depressed he was. As we said goodbye at Windsor ticket barrier, a colleague told me that the man was Alan Lake, the husband of Diana Dors, who had died some weeks before. Shortly afterwards, I read that Mr Lake had committed suicide.

There were also many pleasant incidents, both with staff and with passengers. I had many enjoyable conversations with people who had to share my brakevan for one reason or another, perhaps because they had a bicycle or pram, or were in a wheelchair. During my twenty years as a guard I also met many well-known people who travelled on my trains, including Princess Margaret (and her entourage, which included armed police officers), The Baroness Fookes, Glenda Jackson (with whom I chatted - just the two of us - for 100 minutes) as well as a host of celebrities, actors and singers. Only once was I so crass as to ask for an autograph and that was of Michael Fenton Stevens, who played my favourite character Martin Brown on the Radio 4 comedy Radio Active. I frequently sold tickets to Lord Longford and Lord Thompson of Montifieth, as their local stations were unstaffed. What a strange job it was: one minute selling a ticket to a member of the Upper House, the next ordering a drunken and malodorous vagrant to leave the train!

A 'NEW GIRL' ONCE AGAIN

In 1987 I moved to the coast and transferred to Ramsgate depot. Here I returned to being the first and only woman guard. I hadn't realised how progressive my London colleagues were until I worked at Ramsgate, where I met with hidebound prejudice and provincial narrow-mindedness. To my irritation, despite my nine years' service, I had once again to go through the tedious process of 'proving' that a woman could do a guard's job.

Managers treated me appallingly. I had moved to Ramsgate with my boyfriend, a fellow guard with two years' less service than me. He was given free reign in his route-learning. He could come in when he liked, go on any train of his choice and go home when he'd had enough. Of course, he chose to do his learning during daylight, when the objects under scrutiny could be seen. I, in contrast, was put on lengthy late shift duties and was rostered with specific guards and made to follow their duties exactly, working into the small hours, which obliged me to get a taxi home as we were living for 6 weeks at Broadstairs while waiting for our house purchase to be completed. I can recall even today how hopping mad I was to get indoors and find my boyfriend sitting with his feet up or fast asleep, having been to work for 4 hours against my 8 or 9. Because no-one was watching him, some days he used to just go in and show his face, then get a train straight back to Broadstairs and have the day off. (He was later promoted to driver and is now the Train Crew Supervisor!) Naturally, I complained of being treated unequally to a man, contrary to the Sex Discrimination Act, in response to which my manager took me aside privately and threatened to sack me. I tried to complain about this to the Welfare Officer but he refused to take my calls. So I had to suffer the indignity of being treated completely differently from my partner, on pain of dismissal, until we both passed our route learning exams.

When I met the Guards' Inspector for the first time, to my disgust he suggested I open a brothel instead of being a guard. Complaining was no longer an option; it could only make things worse.

Colleagues were no better. I was subjected to offensive remarks such as accusations of being 'unladylike' as well as comments about where woman's place really should be in this world. The expression 'pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen' was one that was heard frequently in the messroom.

One night I managed to get a tiny little bit of revenge. I was about to begin a journey when my driver (an Ashford-based man) told me women were not fit to be train crew: 'well it's your monthlies isn't it?' he explained. We set off and twenty minutes later we screeched to a halt. The gauges told me he'd applied the emergency brakes. Leaning out of the window I saw that he'd overshot a semaphore signal protecting a level crossing deep in the Kent countryside. Brimming with triumph, I marched up to the cab and asked him sarcastically: 'time of the month is it, driver?' The signal was not illuminated and he hadn't seen it. His humiliation was complete when he was given a dressing down by the signalwoman (I think she was at Chartham box), who roundly scolded him for not knowing the rules!

I was taunted with comments about my being well-known as a troublemaker and repeatedly told that nobody had wanted me to come to the depot. Men who disagreed with such remarks kept their silence, only crawling out of the woodwork (after my partner had left me) to ask me for a date. Naturally I rejected them. After all, they had not sprung to my defence when I was the brunt of vicious comments. Sticking two fingers up at the lot of them, I had a year-long affair with a 21 year old driver who was 12 years my junior.

Around 1988 I was asked by the NUR District Council to attend meetings of the National Women's Advisory Committee, which I did for a couple of years. This was used by the all-male National Executive for all the female-related matter that they did not wish to handle. The committee had no power whatsoever. If we passed a resolution in women's favour the NEC could overrule it. It made me see that it is better to have one woman on the executive rather than to ghettoise women by having their issues dealt with by a separate committee. The chair and secretary of the committee were both men and no woman could hold either position. The most annoying aspect of the committee was that every time a delegate was needed to attend an external women's conference or meeting, the same woman (a Branch Secretary called Tessa van Gelderen) was sent every time. She should have had the decency to stand back and let her less-experienced 'sisters' have a chance instead of monopolising everything.

In 1990 I began to study part-time for a degree. Luckily the unions had negotiated for tuition fees to be paid by BR, or rather Network Southeast, as my employer was called by then. I also began the research for my book .

I was sent on a week's residential Customer Care course at the Watford Hilton. Here I met a guard seven years my junior who was based at Hastings. He persuaded me that I would be much happier there.

A THIRD DEPOT

In 1992 I moved to Hastings, where things were indeed quite different. There were several female guards and - for the first time - female drivers at my depot. The women were more confident and took no nonsense from the men. There was less hostility and fewer sexist comments, just humorous banter to which the women took little or no offence. In fact, it was a friendlier depot altogether, with an active social club, and a pool table and dartboard within the spacious train crew accommodation, which also included a TV room with video player and cable television. Also, the messroom was shared, whereas at Ramsgate drivers and guards had separate rooms.

The guard's job had changed considerably since my Wimbledon days. Guards no longer took trains into yards and depots, nor did we attach or detach trains. This saddened me as I always preferred the operational side to the guard's job to the 'customer care' side - at heart I was a freight guard. There were no night turns. Rosters were tightened up until there was much less time spent in messrooms or 'spare', and more time on passenger trains. Concurrently, the regime gradually became stricter. We had to wear all parts of the uniform, rules were more strongly enforced. One of the pettier of the new rules introduced decreed that female train crews' tights must not be more than 40 denier and we were not allowed to wear dark underwear. The colour of men's socks was also limited to navy or grey. Printed directives warned us that anyone wearing the wrong colour risked being sent home to change, with concomitant disciplinary action and loss of pay.

The management by this time had become absolutely obsessed with guards' ticket sales. From selling the odd ticket when specifically asked, we had to carry a heavy ticket-issuing computer around our necks and were ordered to patrol through the length of each and every train, sometimes more than once per journey, repeatedly checking that everyone had a ticket. This activity brought us into new conflicts with the public, and not only in relation to tickets. We witnessed behaviour that we hadn't seen before: smoking, feet on seats, loud music, drunkenness, uncouth behaviour, and other passengers looked to us to respond by taking action against the perpetrators. The problem was that the regulations, drawn up in the 19th century, didn't give guards any powers either to remove or to fine people.

When smoking on trains was completely banned in 1992 it was left to guards to enforce the ruling, and we met with considerable, determined non-co-operation. Whole gangs of smokers would light up, defiantly, while groups of anti-smokers ordered us to stop them. Polite requests to cease smoking were met with jeers and sneers and considerable barracking and mirth. The problem was, management had failed to give us any power to remove smokers from the train or even to compel them to extinguish their cigarettes. Our only available action was to take their names and addresses, which, as readers can imagine, included a fair number of Mickey Mouses and Donald Ducks. We were, in fact, powerless.

By 1994 my historical research entered its fifth year and I was invited to be a consultant historian for the National Railway Museum, which needed my help for a forthcoming major exhibition on railwaywomen. For 18 months my immediate manager gave me paid leave to attend the monthly meetings at York. The exhibition attracted the attention of the media, and I appeared in various newspapers, magazines, on BBC television and radio. Then Jack Simmons, a professor of history at Leicester University and well-known railway history author, invited me to be an 'expert contributor' to the book he was editing - the Oxford Companion to British Railway History - published by the Oxford University Press.

At this time I also graduated with a BSc degree, after just four years of study instead of the usual six. I went on to study for a further three years and was awarded my Honours in 1997. This drew further media attention, and the Daily Mirror ran a feature article about me. My university cited me in its literature as an example of what could be achieved by a working-class person studying part-time.

One of the effects of this publicity, and of mixing with people in a professional capacity outside of the railway, was to highlight the enormous contrast between the contemptuous way I was treated by certain individuals in Network Southeast (and later, Connex) management and the respect and admiration I received elsewhere.

THE INSULT

In late 1996 I damaged two vertebrae in my spine by slipping on diesel fuel leaking from a unit on the Brighton to Ashford line. My GP banned me from heavy lifting and from climbing into trains from track level. This meant I could no longer be a guard, because in the event of an emergency a guard would have to do just that. Connex had to find me suitable alternative work. This should have been easy since, as well as having 20 years' railway operating experience, I was a literate and numerate university graduate who could operate a computer.

Incidentally, my medical certificate was supposed to be private and confidential, but I knew it had done the rounds of the entire depot because a few men told me they'd heard that I was suffering from a 'gynaecological problem'. I realised that their mis-information could only have come from my medical certificate, which had said that I had damage to my 'cervical vertebrae' and someone must have thought this was something to do with the cervix!

Connex employed thousands of staff in dozens of jobs in hundreds of locations and I didn't think it would be long before I was offered something. What happened astonished me: Connex left me unoccupied at home for seven months on full pay. Then I was placed in a temporary position at the Telephone Enquiry Bureau at Tonbridge, which was scheduled to close down ten weeks later. During my training, the manager and supervisors let me go home early every day.

At the end of three weeks, in October 1997, I was suspended, pending dismissal, for leaving early. For ten anxious days I waited at home, nearly out of my mind with worry, especially as I had just taken on a mortgage. I dreaded the outcome. The manager appointed to investigate concluded that I left indeed left early, but always with the express permission of my supervisor.

Despite this, I was not allowed to return to the job in the Enquiry Bureau, even though I had being passed out as a fully qualified travel advisor. Instead, I was sent home on full pay for a further seven months.

During that time, a male colleague with less than a quarter of my service was removed from guard's duties because of physical incapacity and immediately installed as a clerical officer in Hastings ticket office. This shocked me, and while I was wondering what my response should be, I was summonsed to the depot manager at Tonbridge. I realised then what was going on: they must have given Peter the lesser of two jobs that had come available. Happy and confident of my ability to tackle whatever supervisory, managerial or clerical job he was going to offer me, I went to see the new manager, a new recruit I had never met before. His manner was very cold, which surprised me. He said, rather abruptly, that they had found a job for me: cleaning trains from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. at West Marina Depot. He said if I refused, I would be sacked.

I later phoned my branch secretary. We both knew that the manager had expected me to refuse the job, out of pride, and the only way to outwit them was to turn up for work. He was disgusted with Connex's action and concerned that they had sent me to work at a depot two miles from my home and didn't think I should be expected to walk or pay for a cab (I no longer drive). He asked the manager to supply a taxi every night at 1am, charged to Connex. This was agreed.

When I reported to the cleaning shed for work it was fully staffed and there was in any case no work I could do. The trains didn't start arriving in till after 9pm. Even then, I couldn't clean them: my medical restriction forbade me from climbing into the trains from track level - that was, after all, the very reason that I could not be a guard! To keep me from guard's duties because of a medical disability and then force me to take a much more physically demanding job was absurd. I was perfectly clear to me and my union reps that the whole situation had been devised as some kind of trap.

The supervisor had no use for me at all and said I could go home early. Well I wasn't going to fall for that trap again; besides, Connex had booked a taxi for me for 1 am so I could not go before then. The whole situation was a farce. I was bored out of my brains, so bored, in fact, that I washed the fronts of trains with a power hose for a couple of evenings, until my eczema flared up. My GP then removed me from the work, specifying to Connex, in writing: 'no cleaning!' My career as a cleaner lasted precisely three and a half days.

Connex sent me home on full pay and claimed to be unable to find any work for me whatsoever, even though I was not only a literate and numerate recent university graduate who could operate a computer, but also a full-trained (by them!) rail travel adviser. My union rep told me my position was extremely precarious: if they failed to find me a job, they could at any moment simply issue me with three months' notice of termination owing to my being unfit for work. The fact is, I was fit for clerical work (such as booking office, announcing, admin, rosters, etc).

I tried to take matters into my own hands. I obtained a copy of the vacancy sheet and applied for a booking office job. My application was refused because 'conciliation grade' - i.e. uniformed, weekly paid - staff, were not allowed to apply for clerical positions. So I applied for a job working on a platform only to be rejected because I was 'unable to perform the full range of duties' (e.g. lift anything heavy). The situation was very unfair: they refused to adapt a job to accommodate me, or to waive a rule to let me go into office work. To add insult to injury, a female guard was 'accommodated' during her pregnancy by being given a job in our ticket office. There were now two ex-guards in the ticket office whilst I - who had longer service than both of them combined - was told I was ineligible for a ticket office job. It was a clear case of victimization, and yet I was powerless to do anything.

Taking advice from my union, I sued for Sex Discrimination, citing the man who - despite being my junior - was given the position in the booking office. Owing to an agreement with Connex I am unable to reveal the outcome of the case.

I resigned in December 1998, twenty-one years since I'd started as a learner guard. One month later I sued Connex for personal injury. My union provided first-rate legal representation. Owing to an agreement with Connex I am unable to reveal the outcome of the case.

It was a great shock to my system to leave the railway, having spent almost my whole adult life as a guard. While it is a great relief to be free from the stress of the shiftwork, the sexist comments, and most of all the endless conflicts with management, I am still nostalgic for my early days, my old depot, the old trains, the fun times.

Nowadays my life is completely different. I own a small publishing company and have written six history books and have published about 15 by others. My daily tasks now include research, proofreading, editing, typesetting and book cover design. I have recently worked as a university tutor and as a book editor, and have written many history articles. I give occasional public talks (related to my books) and am the writer, designer and webmistress of two massive history websites: Hastings Press and History of British Women's Emancipation.



  Part 1
  Part 2
  Photos of HW as a guard

Helena Fecit April 2001-February 2005. Copyright Helena Wojtczak 2017