Key worker: Trudy Aarons

26 June 2018

Interview as featured in the June 2018 edition of the ASLEF Journal. 

 

Trudy Aarons, one of Britain’s first black women train drivers, has retired after nearly 30 years on the iron road. Trudy, 57, who worked out of Waterloo, has taken early retirement, on ill-health, from South Western Railway. ‘I never thought about becoming a train driver when I was a kid but I’d say to any young black girl, go for it, you’ll enjoy it! I have…’

Trudy was born in 1961 at Haggatt Hall, a village in the parish of St Michael, not far from the capital Bridgetown, on the sunshine island of Barbados in the Caribbean. Her parents separated and, at 16, when she finished school, she left Barbados to come to Britain and join her mother Muriel in Clapham.

‘It was so cold,’ laughs Trudy at her home in Thornton Heath, south London. ‘Freezing! And so much rain, too. But I got used to it…’ She went to college in Vauxhall for a couple of years and then worked at the NAAFI – the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes – in Kennington for three years.

‘I left to have kids’ – Jermaine in 1981, Marvin in 1982, and Aishah in 1986; her fourth child, Shoshauna was born later, in 1998 – and then, when they were in primary school, and she wanted to go back to work, a friend said the railway was recruiting guards.

‘And I said, what’s that? At school, back in Barbados, I was good at Maths and History and thought of nursing. Never about driving trains. But then there are no trains on Barbados! It’s an island, 21 miles by 14 miles, and people use buses or cars. Not trains. But I applied for it – I thought I’d give it a go – and was taken on by Jim Turner, the manager at Waterloo.’

She joined British Rail – she was Trudy Thorne then – as a guard on 3 January 1989. Times were different then and it wasn’t easy to be a woman in what, traditionally, had been a male-dominated industry. It wasn’t easy to be black in Britain; Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech cast a long shadow and the far-right, in the form of the National Front, were on the march. And it isn’t always easy to deal with passengers who can be abusive, especially when drink has been taken.

‘I might have been lucky, but I can remember only one incident of racism when I was a guard – and that was from a driver. I’d done a turn to Guildford and the driver accused me of leaving the door open from his cab into the carriage – which I hadn’t, I’d walked down outside, not inside, the train. He buzzed me and said, “Come and close the f***ing door” and I said, “Are you talking to me?” I walked down the train, and he said, “You left the f***ing door open. You’re all the f***ing same. Why don’t you go back where you came from and swing through the trees?” I walked off the train, told the superviser, and said I wasn’t going to work the train back to Waterloo with him. There was a meeting, with the driver, and he was reprimanded for making racist remarks.

‘Some of the other stuff was about women working. Some men seemed to think, back then, that women should be chained to the kitchen sink. But times have changed and most men now accept women in the workplace, as equals, doing the job.

‘I’ve always been able to get along with people, but have never been afraid to stand up for myself – I’ll give as good as I get! – but I’ve found that my race, and gender, have rarely been a problem on the railway where it’s not difficult to be a woman of colour.’

After a year as a guard Trudy started training to become a driver. ‘They were talking about DOO and I could see that the guard’s job I’d been doing, which I’d enjoyed, was going to go. I passed at the second attempt – I failed the first time, over paddling up, when I lifted the shoes off the rails – but was really excited when I got my key.’

She worked suburban services out of Waterloo – to stations like Hampton Court – on Class 63s, 57s, 50s, 455s, 450s, 456s and 444s and candidly confesses: ‘I preferred the older stock – like the 63 – the old slam door trains, because the braking system was a lot better, to the new trains.’

As a driver, at the pointy end of the train, Trudy didn’t have much contact with the public. ‘But there were times when passengers would pass by the cab, or see me getting in or out, and say “Oh, look, it’s a coloured lady”. I’d just smile because it wasn’t racist, people were just a little surprised.

‘Because, back then, I think I was British Rail’s first black woman train driver, so I blazed a trail, in a way. Now there are more women driving trains, and more black faces, too.’

Trudy retired on 14 April after 29 years on the railway working for British Rail, South West Trains, and South Western. ‘I’ve had a good run, but I’ve had some medical problems – tennis elbow meant I was taken off 450s and 444s – I didn’t want redeployment and was offered medical retirement.’

She won’t be bored. Trudy has four children and six grandchildren – pictures of whom feature prominently in her sitting room – and with a golden reputation at Waterloo for her fabulous Caribbean cooking – specialities include fried chicken, jerk chicken, curried goat, steamed fish, and pepper prawns – hopes to expand her catering business.

‘I’ve already done a wedding for 500 people and Jermaine’s getting married next year and is inviting 400.’ Will he get a mate’s rate? ‘He might do…’

 

 

 

 

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