Hong Kong MTR

Breaking the glass ceiling: MTR hires more female train drivers for Crossrail services in London

Hong Kong’s rail giant offers friendlier working hours too, to ease driver shortages

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 8:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 10:26am

Inside a suburban depot in east London, Ewelina Wanczyk and Carinne Spinola were learning how to drive a train in snowy and stormy weather.

Wanczyk wore a look of confidence as she climbed into the driver’s seat, staring at the large screen in front her. Focused and determined, she intently listened to her supervisor’s instructions before pushing the start button on the simulator they were using. The virtual train started smoothly, but before long the simulated sunny weather turned foul, with lightning and thunder booming all around.

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Unfazed, Wanczyk slowed the train, noticing the tracks had become slippery. A few seconds later snow filled the screen, reducing visibility. But Wanczyk turned on the headlight and kept going until she eased the train to a stop next to a crowded platform.

She had made it.

Wanczyk, 28, and Spinola, 37, are among a new wave of female and younger drivers Hong Kong railway operator MTR Corp has hired to drive trains on a section of the £15 billion (HK$159 billion), 118km Crossrail line that will run from Shenfield in the east, through central London, to Reading in the west when it is completed.

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In an industry dominated in Britain by men, MTR Corp has gone against tradition, targeting women to help ease driver shortages, said Helen Lee, head of drivers at MTR’s London-based subsidiary MTR Crossrail, which is contracted to operate the section between Shenfield and Liverpool Street station from 2015 to 2023.

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Lee said 13 per cent of MTR Crossrail’s drivers were female, more than double the UK industry average of 5.4 per cent.

The company offered more employee-friendly work hours, in a bid to attract more workers, giving drivers two weeks off after every eight weeks of work. The strategy appeared to have paid off, Lee said, as the company got 21,000 applications for 400 driver positions.

“We have many drivers who came from different backgrounds such as graphic designers, police officers and make-up artists,” Lee said. “There is nothing to do with their academic background, but applicants need to undergo a visual test, an assessment on whether they can concentrate for a long period of time and being alone, and a test on their ability to react quickly.”

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Wanczyk and Spinola were working in Heathrow airport as a security guard and a sales associate, respectively, a few months ago when they saw an MTR advertisement for female drivers on the rail project.

“I thought, ‘that’s perfect,’ when seeing the advertisement because Crossrail is one of biggest projects in Europe,” Spinola said. “There is a lot of time-off shifts, which I can juggle between work and family.”

Wanczyk said she would use the holiday time to travel more often.

Denise Tsang reported from London