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Women Inspiring Rail: A Q&A with Hull Trains’ Louise Cheeseman

Posted: 24 May 2019 | | No comments yet

In this first interview for Global Railway Review’s Women Inspiring Rail series, Louise Cheeseman, Managing Director of Hull Trains, talks about her proudest moments in rail so far, who has been an inspiration during her rail career and her vision to make Hull Trains the number one train operating company in the UK.

Women Inspiring Rail: A Q&A with Hull Trains' Louise Cheeseman

How did your career in rail begin and what does your current job involve?

My rail career began in 2000 when I saw an advert in my local newspaper for the role of train guard at Northern Rail.

At that time, I was working in a bank as a cashier, having left school at the age of 16. I was a single mum following the breakdown of my marriage and I needed more money to support the girls through university.

Much to my family’s horror – as they didn’t want their only daughter to work on the railways compared to the safe environment of the bank – I applied for the job.

I started training in 2001 in Hull and at that time there was only me and one other female guard at Hull.

In 2007 I applied for a job as Traincrew Manager at Sheffield depot for Northern Rail. My girls had gone to university by this point. I commuted from Hull to Sheffield for two years, before being asked if I’d like to become the Safety Standards Manager at the head office in York.

I then became Operations Delivery Manager for the north east, based in Newcastle.

In 2012 I got a call to say Serco – owners of Northern Rail, who held the franchise for the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) which was responsible for the transport for the Olympics – wanted a new lead in London.

I went to London having not lived away from home in my life and ended up being there for three and a half years. I loved every minute of it, it was one of best experiences of my life.

I then became General Manager for the DLR. I worked in Sydney, Australia, to help the light-rail bid. At this point I left Northern Rail and worked directly for Serco.

My current job involves making sure we operate a safe railway – that’s my absolute number one priority.

Secondly, it’s to give customers a great experience; if I achieve that then we will have a successful business and Hull Trains will grow.

In 2015 I was approached by Manchester Metrolink at a time when its operation was increasing, and I went to support the delivery of this huge extension in the newly created role of Service Delivery Director.

After two years, in 2017, I joined Hull Trains as Service Delivery Director – I was finally coming home, and it felt brilliant.

In February 2018 the Managing Director left the business and I was asked to take over which was a huge honour.

My current job involves making sure we operate a safe railway – that’s my absolute number one priority.

Secondly, it’s to give customers a great experience; if I achieve that then we will have a successful business and Hull Trains will grow.

I am constantly looking forward and ahead, encouraging innovation and opportunities to grow the business, and using the trains to attract more customers.

My vision is really clear – I want Hull Trains to become the number one train operating company in the UK, and if we can do that, that will be my legacy.

What aspects of your job do you find the most challenging/rewarding and why?

One of the most challenging aspects for me has been the introduction of social media. I think it must be similar to being a football manager, when everyone thinks they know how to run the team better.

When I read social media and some of the criticisms levelled at us, it’s clear that people don’t understand the challenges we face as an open access operator.

Some of the criticisms we’ve had, both personally and about the business, in my opinion, have been very unfair – but that’s the modern way.

I’m a people person and if I can have an engaged workforce and customers who want to come back and travel with us again, for me that’s a reward personally because I’ve got happy staff and a loyal customer base.

Also having a very small fleet of trains with not much resilience is a challenge. I’d love to have more trains if we could, but we are getting a brand-new fleet of trains in November 2019 so we can see an end to that challenge.

The most rewarding part is the feedback from customers after they have travelled with us and had a good experience.

The praise that customers give my team and the pleasure my team get in seeing positive feedback is very rewarding.

Being able to deliver a strong business that has a big future for the people of Hull, both from an employment and a customer point of view, is very rewarding.

I’m a people person and if I can have an engaged workforce and customers who want to come back and travel with us again, for me that’s a reward personally because I’ve got happy staff and a loyal customer base.

What is it about the rail industry you are most passionate about?

There is so much opportunity in the rail industry in terms of growth and innovation. I want to align ourselves to the airline industry.

There is so much more we can do. I am so passionate about the rail industry because unlike a lot of other industries which are dying out, rail isn’t. We can get even better and if there was nothing more I could do; I’d walk away because I’d want a new challenge.

There are still a lot of challenges generally in the rail industry. The Williams Rail Review is looking at some of these, but I can see so many opportunities for growth and customer improvement.

We are in an industry where passenger numbers are rising rapidly, I see an industry that still has so much potential.

It must be so sad if you work in an industry which is changing, you only have to look at the high street shops which are closing around us.

We are the opposite, and in some ways, we are the victim of our own success, but that is a nice problem to have. Our trains average 86 per cent seat occupancy, which is a testament to the people within the business and the service we offer onboard.

There’s a lot more we can do, we are always finding new ways of working to improve the experience further for passengers, for example using smart technology for contactless tickets.

I was in London when the contactless system on the London Underground was launched and I’ve seen how that’s taken off phenomenally – that’s just one example of how the public capture and embrace changes.

I’d like to look at how we book tickets and how we give passengers information in real-time. There’s so much we can do, so it’s impossible not to be passionate.

What has been your biggest achievement/proudest moment in your rail career so far?

There have been many moments to be proud of. I didn’t just get my first job in rail handed on a plate to me. I was one of 25 people who got through to the full-day assessment in Sheffield, but I was the only female there.

We were put through psychometric testing and one by one, people were sent home. At the end there was just me and three men left.

I got called in and I was told I’d come out top, but the man from the recruitment firm said I wasn’t getting the job offer because I was too posh and he said to me: ‘I wouldn’t want my daughter working on the railway.’

He told me I’d not cope with the mess room culture and basically said it was a man’s world.

There have been many moments to be proud of. I didn’t just get my first job in rail handed on a plate to me. I was one of 25 people who got through to the full-day assessment in Sheffield, but I was the only female there.

I then spent 15 minutes in my usual dogmatic way telling him every reason I should get the job.

He said: ‘On your head be it, I’ll give you three months.’ That was like a red rag to a bull for me and made me even more determined to succeed.

If I hadn’t done that, I’d not be where I am today. At this point, believe it or not, I’d never been on a train before.

It was a tough few years juggling shifts and raising my daughters on my own, but being a single mum has made me the strong person I am today and sent a message to both my daughters that being a woman is not an excuse.

There’s nothing a man can do that a woman can’t and it’s no reason not to follow your dreams.

Joining Hull Trains was also a very proud moment for me. After working away, I was coming home. I knew how much Hull Trains meant to the city of Hull and I was really passionate and determined to make a positive impact.

Years ago, I’d looked at the guards who worked for Hull Trains and thought to myself how I’d love to work for them one day.

How has the rail industry evolved since you joined? What have been the biggest changes?

Over the years there have been massive changes. When I joined it was more about the trains than the people. Everyone was focused on a train moving from A to B and not the reason why we were moving.

Now, they don’t just sit and drive a train, they give customer information, they engage with customers, their whole role is completely focused on helping the customer.We are a million miles further on. If you look at a typical train driver from years gone by to a typical train driver now there’s no comparison.

The customer-centric nature of the business has been turned on its head. 

Who in the rail community has been an inspiration to you and why?

Dyan Crowther, who is now Chief Executive Officer for High Speed 1, was my boss when I first joined Northern Rail and I used to look at her and think: ‘Wow, I wish I could be like her.’ 

Dyan Crowther, who is now Chief Executive Officer for High Speed 1, was my boss when I first joined Northern Rail and I used to look at her and think: ‘Wow, I wish I could be like her.’ 

She was the reason I became ambitious. She was just an ordinary woman, there were no airs and graces. I knew she had a family, but she also sailed the Fast Net race and was chief Girl Guide. 

She had a high-pressure role, but she was still a mum, she managed to juggle everything yet always remain calm and self-assured. I looked at her in awe.

The other is Heidi Mottram who is now CEO at Northumberland Water. I remember once when she was head of the business at Northern Rail and I was a guard and she called my name – I thought the fact she was the leader, yet knew my name was impressive.

She told me I had real talent and that resonated with me, I’ve never forgotten that. She taught me a massive lesson about the impact I too can have on people. She is a very determined lady who could deal with people, she is very resilient.

With both of these women, over the years when I’ve faced difficult circumstances, I’ve thought: ‘How would they deal with that?’ I’ve thought back to how they behaved, how they coped and how they carried themselves.

They also made me mindful that people will look at me and I’d love to think that I could be a role model for others, like they were for me.

What can be done to diversify the workforce in the rail sector? What advice would you give to those thinking about pursuing a career in rail?

I get asked this question a lot. I sit on the board for Women in Rail and I speak at a lot of women-specific events.

Looking out at the sea of female faces I think it’s something more subtle. The industry needs to be more attractive to women. It needs to be a place where women are respected and valued in the business and women in turn need to understand that rail offers a fantastic career.

The only reason I went into a career in rail was because it paid well, but in hindsight it’s been the best experience for me.

The rail industry does have a lot to offer, women need to explore opportunities in rail and be prepared to explore and not wait for people to bring the opportunities to them.

I’d say to anyone considering a career in rail to give it a chance. If it gives them half of what it’s given me, it will be a wonderful career.

I’ve just encouraged my stepdaughter into the rail industry and she has become a guard with Northern Rail. I’d tell anyone what I told her, that rail is a great career.

If you would like to take part in the Women Inspiring Rail series, or would like to nominate a colleague to part, please email: Craig Waters, Editor, Global Railway Review

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