INTERNATIONAL WOMEN IN ENGInEERING DAY 2021
GWSR celebrates International Women in Engineering Day
Case Studies: Tina Sutton and Bryony Exton
Today (Wednesday 23 June 2021) is International Women in Engineering Day which celebrates the amazing work done by women in a wide range of engineering roles - from medicine to mechanical engineering; research to railways and everything in between. In the heritage railway sector women are playing important roles and on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway, there are many female volunteers including in the steam locomotive department.
Here are two case studies of women making their way in the often challenging environment of steam locotive restoration, overhaul, maintenance and operation. They are Tina Sutton, who has been a GWSR volunteer for over 14 years, and Bryony Exton who has been with the railway for just three.
Tina Sutton: 'Fulfilling a dream'
Tina Sutton 'on the shovel' (GWSR)
Tina Sutton has been a volunteer with the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway (GWSR) since 2007, joining the Cotswold heritage line’s steam department to follow her dream of eventually becoming a driver. She is now well on the way to achieving that ambition, as she is now undergoing driver training having been a fireman for the best part of 10 years. She has also fulfilled a number of roles within the department’s management team, based at Toddington.
“I know my father would be very proud to see me following in his footsteps,” Tina says. Her dad joined the Great Western Railway in the 1930s starting at the very bottom, as a ‘knocker upper’ knocking-up engine crews so that they weren’t late booking on for their turns at Gloucester Horton Road depot. He worked his way up, eventually becoming a steam driver, and then on to diesels - retiring in the mid-1980s. “He would have been 100 next year,” Tina adds.
One of the locomotives on the GWSR is Modified Hall 4-6-0 no. 7903 Foremarke Hall. “I was given a list of steam engines which my father had driven, and the dates during April to June 1964 from a former firemen he once shared the footplate with, and discovered that he actually drove Foremarke Hall, over the Cheltenham-Stratford-upon-Avon line (over 14 miles of which the GWSR today operates) just before the end of Western Region steam. I’d like to think that in the future when I’m driving 7903, he will be there in spirit with me on the footplate."
Working with steam has traditionally been very much a men’s world, although during the war, women very effectively took over many roles in railway works and depots across the UK, keeping Britain’s economy on the move - and there is plenty of evidence that women rose very much to the challenge and enjoyed it.
“I believe the ‘romance' of the steam railway captures the imagination of women just as it does men,” Tina adds. “And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t follow that imagination into volunteering and I’m proud to see many women taking increasingly prominent roles in the heritage railway movement.
"We have a number of women on the GWSR in a wide range of functions, including working with locomotive overhaul and restoration projects, engine maintenance, as well as coming through the ranks on the footplate. Getting involved with a voluntary organisation such as a heritage railway is hugely fulfilling and rewarding, in the sense of doing a job well and getting satisfaction from it. What’s more, I have made many lasting friendships through the shared interest we have in our wonderful railway."
For her, a passion for railways in general and steam in particular started early. “Because my father worked for the railways - he was based variously at Gloucester and Worcester depots - we didn’t have a car and of course, train travel was free for railway families. I used to spend a lot of time with my brother train spotting as children and I loved train travel and that has stayed with me!”
Tina is a trade compliance officer in the aerospace industry, as well as being a mother and grandmother, all of which brings its own work-life challenges. “The railway is a great release - it couldn’t be more different than my ‘day job’ and offers a wonderful focus beyond the daily routines.”
Volunteering in the railway’s steam department has become a much more attractive option since the railway’s new ’The Goods Shed’ welfare facilities opened earlier this year. It includes excellent facilities for women and men including changing rooms, toilets and showers, as well as mess facilities, a kitchen, meeting rooms and a medical facility. The £500,000 building, arranged over two floors, is a tasteful extension of the existing former Goods Shed at Toddington station. It was largely funded by the charitable Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway Trust (GWRT) as well as donations from volunteers through the Trust.
Previously, the steam department mess facility was in a converted Mk 1 coach, parked alongside the original goods shed which is now a machine shop.
“A few years ago I led a project to smarten up the coach with a complete refurbishment inside and out,” Tina says. That included painting it chocolate and cream rather than its original maroon. “The department decided that the coach should be called ’Tina’ which was a great honour - and my name is painted Pullman-style on the coach side. But its use has come to an end which is perhaps a little sad, but our new facilities are, I dare say, the best of their kind in the heritage railway industry.”
Bryony Exton: 'Steam is in my blood'
Bryony is a relative newcomer as a volunteer on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway (GWSR) and, at 27, a relative ‘youngster’ but she says railways - especially steam - are ‘in her blood’.
Bryony Exton: in with both feet (GWSR)
“With a family history of working on the mainline back in the day, I suppose it was inevitable that I would be drawn into volunteering on a heritage railway,” Bryony muses. “I was already interested in the GWSR when I visited the line at the opening of Broadway station, back over Easter 2018 and I was captivated by the excitement of the occasion, the atmosphere and above all, the friendliness of the volunteers.” she says. “I didn’t realise then that that visit would pretty much change my life, as once I started I jumped in with both feet!"
Her dream was two-fold - to be a guard and also be on the footplate: “hopefully, eventually as a steam driver,” she says.
There is, after all, no reason why she shouldn’t achieve that goal. The GWSR has an excellent training programme and volunteers are nurtured as they follow the training path and gain skills at their own pace. “That’s one thing I really admire about the GWSR,” says Bryony. “The training is very well structured with a clear development track. There is no pressure and I - and the other women on the railway - are treated as part of the team. I have never felt an outsider, never felt that my gender is a barrier to my volunteering.
“Learning new skills brings a host of benefits for life!”
In 2019, Bryony achieved her first objective, to be qualified as a guard and she can often be seen with whistle and flag, seeing her trains away from the 14-mile long railway’s stations. “I’m now in the very first stages of my footplate training. It’s going to be a long journey and I have a lot to learn. Being on the footplate of a steam locomotive is an incomparable thrill and a real privilege. Those who have been driving for years still feel that same thrill. I feel very much part of the steam department.”
She has become a popular member of the team, too, getting involved with the department’s administration. She acts as the department secretariat, co-ordinating the management team and working with the department chair. She also co-writes the department’s blog. Bryony, whose day-job is as a senior operations manager for the government’s research funding organisation, has found her involvement with the railway fulfilling, rewarding and fun.
“Working on a heritage railway is so worthwhile and has done masses for my confidence. My advice to any women thinking about joining would be ‘don’t hesitate and don’t worry’. Just ask any member of our volunteer staff or take a look at the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway Trust (GWRT) website, where there is a lot of information about volunteering. Your gender certainly won’t get in the way - you’ll find a warm welcome and you’ll quickly make lasting friendships - and I know that applies to other heritage railways around the UK too.”
Media contact: Ian Crowder, 07775 566555 or email@example.com