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Work Life: Sylvia Prince, Tube Driver


Sylvia Prince, 38, is a tube driver for TfL. She lives in Streatham, south London with her husband Cyril, a medical technical manager, and their two children Ella, four, and Reuben, two.

"A ‘dead early’ shift on the tube starts at 4.45am. I’ll set the alarm for 2.45am and put it on the other side of the room so I have to get out of bed to turn it off. I wash and get dressed in my TfL uniform: navy trousers, blue shirt or jumper and Dr Martens shoes. I can’t bring myself to wear the official trousers, though – they’re tapered and pleated down the front. Horrible. So I wear my own.

Preparation for a shift starts the day before. There’s a no-alcohol policy eight hours before you’re driving and I try and make sure I get a solid seven hours’ sleep (although with a two-year-old, it’s not always easy). Shift-work can be hard especially as it impacts on my husband, mum, mother-in-law and sister, who all help me out with childcare.

The drive to the Edgware Road depot where I pick up my train takes 35 minutes, but I’ll always leave an hour before my shift starts. If you’re late, it causes all sorts of problems. A train can be cancelled, you will get ‘booked’ and if you have three incidents in six months, you can face disciplinary action.

It took 12 weeks to train to be a driver. I spent five weeks locked in a classroom learning about procedures, signalling and mechanics before I was even allowed to try driving. I’ve had to memorise every detail of the line too, which is hard considering everything looks the same. The shifts are long (between five and eight hours) but I prefer it to a nine-to-five job. I can drop off or collect my daughter from nursery which I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Yes, I have to get up ridiculously early but I don’t have to travel in the rush hour. If I do grocery shopping after work, the shops aren’t busy and, to make up for the fact that I have to work most weekends (I get two rest days during the week in lieu), I get eight weeks’ holiday a year.

I love the quirkiness of my job, too. Sometimes, early in the morning, I see pigeons getting on the train at Edgware Road then getting off at Baker Street. When I first started, I hadn’t realised that pigeons often get stuck in the tunnels and end up flying into your windscreen. I got such a shock, I screamed when it happened to me.

I like to sing to myself. I'm sure the passengers can hear me

I drive the C Stock – the oldest trains dating from 1969 – and the S Stock, the newest ‘electrical’ train which has an embedded computer. All driving is done by hand and one lever is used to manually motor and brake the train. It can be repetitive, and, if I’m honest, a little boring. Drivers have different ways of staying alert. I sing to myself – I’m sure people in the first carriage hear me all the time. Sometimes I’ll pick tunes that I don’t really know the words to and try to remember them as I drive round the Circle Line.

I like to wave at children as I’m driving into stations, too. During the Easter holidays, I spotted a group of kids at the start of the platform at Liverpool Street and waved. They waved back, then the next group of people waved, and by the time I got to the other end, the whole platform was smiling and waving. It was a fantastic thing to see on a dreary day. I chuckle whenever I think about it.

For lunch, I’ll grab a pasta salad from Marks & Spencer. I’ve started eating more salad since working on the tube. You can’t eat a heavy hot meal – you just won’t feel awake.

I have great responsibility as a tube driver. A bad day at work could mean that someone gets injured or dies. When you drive into a crowded station, you hope that no-one’s going to jump or get knocked onto the tracks. We’re not really given training to prepare us if someone jumps under our train, because everyone will react differently. There are two things we are told to do: apply the emergency brakes and make a mayday call to the controller. I pray every morning that nobody gets killed or injured by my train and it hasn’t happened yet. When I started, I used to crawl into platforms because I thought no-one would jump under my train if it was going slowly. But you can’t think like that. If someone’s going to jump, they’re going to jump.

I’ll finish work in the early afternoon and pick up my daughter from nursery and my son from my mum. I’ll make the children dinner for around 5.30pm and put them to bed at 7.30pm. After that, I’ll eat with Cyril and we’ll sit in the kitchen and chat about our days before heading to bed at about 10pm.”