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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Meet Tahira, the UK’s first female Pakistani train driver

An ex-transport cop from Bradford has made history by being the first South Asian woman to qualify as a train driver in the UK.

One of Northern’s newest qualified train drivers, Tahira Bibi has made history by being the first female Pakistani train driver in the UK.

Mrs Bibi, 49, from Bradford, recently passed her final exams to become a train driver. She started her training with Northern in May 2019 but due to the Coronavirus, it has taken longer to complete the course.

Mrs Bibi has had a colourful work history, working for the British Transport Police (BTP) for a decade and working in the charity sector before that.

Mrs Bibi qualified as the UK’s first female Pakistani train driver in September.

Now, she loves working for Northern, driving regularly between Leeds and other cities and towns in West Yorkshire.

Mrs Bibi said: “I’m really enjoying my first few weeks. Sometimes your stomach will be in knots as you are driving a train by yourself, but I’ve been trained to do things properly, so it is not too bad.”

Mrs Bibi has not always dreamed of being a train driver. Instead, she picked up an interest in trains after working in Leeds station as a BTP officer for several years.

She said: “To be honest, I can’t say I’ve always wanted to be a train driver. It is not something that I thought as a female even, I would be able to do.

“I was a police officer with BTP who police the railways here at Leeds station, and that is where I got to know trains and where I got a fascination with them.”

ASLEF, Britain’s trade union for train drivers, found that in 2019, less than 7% of train drivers were women, and less than 9% of train drivers overall were from an ethnic minority. Being the female Pakistani female train driver in the UK, Mrs Bibi is truly breaking stereotypes within the industry.

Mrs Bibi has full backing from her family in her newest career change. She said: “My family are more supportive now of my career than when I joined the police. They were more worried about the danger of being an officer than me driving a train. Driving a train is safer and you are not in a confrontational role.”

When asked about how it feels to be the first female Pakistani train driver in the UK, Mrs Bibi said: “I didn’t know that was the case until I was told after I joined. I feel so proud.”

Mrs Bibi is part of the 7% of female train drivers in the UK.

Mrs Bibi hasn’t come up against any opposition yet, but she mentioned that people often mistake her for a conductor or a guard. Everyone she has told about her new job is surprised at her career change but supportive.

With only one other female driver hired at Northern, the question about logistics of where to get ready came up.

Mrs Bibi said: “There is a locker room but that is for everyone. We do have a women-only area if we need to get changed.”

Working in a male-dominated space can be daunting, but with a decade of policing behind her, Mrs Bibi has slotted in nicely with the other drivers in the company. “Interacting with my male colleagues has been fine, I’ve had no issues”, she said.

“I come from a police background, which is another male-orientated job, so it has been pretty much the same. As we are based in Leeds, I knew a lot of the people before, so it has not been as challenging as people would perhaps think.”

Representation in any industry matters because it shapes how people from minority backgrounds are viewed by wider society and how they view themselves. Representation allows people to feel validated and create a team environment where ideas are diverse, perspectives are varied, and everyone feels different.

Mrs Bibi’s favourite route is from Leeds to Skipton.

For Mrs Bibi, representation in both the police and the rail industry is no different. She said: “If you see someone that looks like you, talks like you, it makes you think if she or he could do it, then I could do it. Had there been more female Asian police officers back before I joined, I would have joined sooner.

“You think ‘is this for me? Why isn’t this for me? Why are there no ethnic minorities in these roles?”

Mrs Bibi’s favourite route is to Skipton and back but her first journey was from Leeds to Ilkley. “Anyone who has done a driving test, a car or anything, knows that the first drive you do on your own is stressful.

“I qualified in ‘slippy season’ when leaves start to fall and cause problems on the train tracks, so I had to be extra careful.”

The process of becoming a driver usually takes between nine and ten months, with class-based lessons and 250 mandatory hours in the cab of the train. However, due to the pandemic, it took Mrs Bibi over two years to complete the training.

She said: “We did classroom training for about ten weeks with some practical-based stuff thrown in there, and then you get put with a trainer, or a ‘minder’ as well call them, which is driving instructor and you follow their shift pattern.

“Before Covid, I had only been with my minder for two weeks before being sent home. We were off for about eight months from March to the end of October. I came back and was assigned another minder. I followed his shift pattern and had to log a certain number of hours before I could even consider doing my final assessment.

Mrs Bibi had to log 250 hours in the cab of the train before she could even be consid

“The assessment is very long, it is about five days, and it includes so many things such as knowing the rules and regulations and knowing the mechanics of the train you drive.

“The most important thing they are concerned about is that if something goes wrong, you know what to do in those circumstances, which is why knowing the rules is so important. It is a very stressful five days.”

Working shifts for the past ten years, Mrs Bibi is used to balancing her private life around unconventional work hours, although she says, the new early mornings can be tough. She said: “Because I was doing shifts with the police, there isn’t much difference in balancing in work and home life. I have to say, the earlies, are very early so they can be a bit challenging.

“For example, if I am due to sign on here at 3.58am, I have to get up at around 2am to get ready and drive to Leeds from Bradford, and if it is your first early after having a few days off you will not be able to sleep, regardless of what time you go to bed. We normally, do eight or nine-hour shifts so it can be quite long.”

There are many things Mrs Bibi enjoys about being a train driver, but her favourite thing is knowing that she is getting people, sometimes 300 or more, from one place to the other safely. “My favourite part is getting people from A to B. Sometimes there are 300+ people on the train that you are getting from one place to the next, either to work, or a day out, or to see family.”

Giving advice to young people about pursuing their dreams on the rails, Mrs Bibi said: “Do your research but absolutely go for it. I love this job; I wish I had done it sooner.

“If you go to a station, speak to people. Speak to the drivers, speak to the guards, the platform staff or even the gate staff. If you have got an interest, go on the website, and do your research.

“It is important that young South Asian women go into non-traditional jobs because it widens their horizons. It maybe makes them think they can do jobs that they thought they couldn’t do.

“You can do things; you can do anything. You can be that person that other people think ‘I can do that, I want to do that’.”

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