As a typically rebellious teen, Arlene looked at her father’s role as a train examiner and decided to study commerce instead. So it came as a surprise when she was offered a job in the railways when she arrived in Australia from India. Twenty years later, Arlene has worked at several stations across the network and has become a passionate train signaller.
What does a normal day look like for you?
This role is all about moving trains within a big network. I start at five in the morning and take over from whoever’s done the night shift. I find out if there’s been any incidents, if there are any circulars for the day, or extra trains. We have the Pakenham/Cranbourne panel which controls from Pakenham all the way up to Dandenong, and then we have the Westall panel which also controls Springvale and Oakleigh. Because of the complexity of the panels and how large the area is that we control, every day is different and it brings challenges of its own. I love that. I love the complexity and responsibility of the panel.
What is signalling and how does it work?
We use the latest technology to control the trains through computerised panels. We’ve got different sections of track and the signals control each of these sections. What we do is we give the train a route from one signal to the next. In between the big stations like Dandenong, Pakenham and Cranbourne, the trains run on automatic signals until they come back into our control again.
What let you to this career?
That was actually quite an adventure. My husband was a railway man back home in India and I grew up as a railway man’s child. But I wanted to do something different, so I went to university. I became a commerce graduate with a major in accounting and then I went and worked in a big industry in Bengaluru. After I got married, I settled down, and customer service became my focus. We came to Australia in 2000 with our three little kids. One day, I went into the city to drop off a job application for my husband who was a train driver back home. The recruiter asked me what my background was and after I told him he said: “Would you like to work for the railways yourself?” I was shocked but I said yes. He replied: “You can start on Monday.” Over the years I’ve worked at Melbourne Central, Pakenham and now Dandenong.
What do you love about this job?
I like the challenge. It’s very satisfying. We get a lot of incidents that happen across our network. It’s really very busy, you’ve got to be multi-tasking. You’ve got to be on the phone, sending trains, talking to drivers, talking to Metrol. At the end of it all, you sit down and think: “Wow that was a good day” because you’ve managed to keep everything under control while following the rules and regulations and keeping everyone safe. The team I work with are very supportive and encouraging too. I don’t think I would have been able to bring up my three kids, who are adults today, if I hadn’t had the support from my colleagues.
What’s been the most memorable moment of your career so far?
In 2014, I was at Pakenham Station and running the signal panel. There was a lot of commotion outside and I saw a train stopped. I realised a 19-year-old boy on his cycle had tried to beat the boom gates and he got hit by a train. I had been talking to a customer in the foyer and she happened to be a nurse, so we ran out there together. I took my radio and got all the signals to stop while she cradled the boy in her arms. I called all the emergency services and managed to reach his poor grandfather who came to be with the boy as his parents were at work. He went off in an ambulance and we didn’t know what his condition was or even if he survived. A few weeks later, he came back to the station in a wheelchair to thank me for helping him. I’ll never forget it.
Tell me about some of the challenges in this job.
There are a lot of challenges in this job. The rules and regulations have to be adhered to at all times, you cannot take shortcuts. You’ve got people’s lives in your hands, so I’ve realised if you are in doubt at any time, ask the question. Don’t guess. It’s not right, it’s not worth it and it builds your integrity. I think communication is the key thing in this job. When there’s a disruption, it’s so important to let people know what the situation is and explain what their options are so they can make decisions about whether they’re going to wait for the next train or try to get a bus and so on.
Thinking back to before you arrived in Australia, would you ever have thought you could do a job like this?
Never! I remember seeing movies back home on a little screen in India and looking at the lights and people travelling in cars in the night, that was never thought of for a woman to do back home. We had to just look after our kids, run the home. That was our role. Even when I got married, I stayed 10 years at home to take care of my kids, so I never thought I’d have a job like this. When I came here, I was so grateful because I would have never seen this side of the life if I hadn’t had this opportunity. I tell people out there, signalling is the best job you can have - every day is a challenge. It’s exciting, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s very satisfying.
Are there many other women working in this field?
We’ve got a lot more coming into the industry now which is great. I’d encourage them to keep doing that. I wouldn’t have been able to have three adult kids today if I hadn’t had the support and encouragement that I’ve had from this job. The people you work with, they’re so accommodating. “If you’ve got something on, we’ll help - family comes first,” they say. I’ve been able to have a very good family life working in the rail industry.
Do you think there are any barriers that might discourage more women from joining this industry?
I think the biggest barrier is us restricting ourselves and saying we can’t do it. There’s nothing that you can’t do. I say there’s no can’t. You’ve got to try and the more you try the better you get at it. Nothing can stop you.
Do you have any advice for fellow women who might be considering a job like this?
Sometimes I think you could look at a job like this and think: “Oh, it’s really too hard.” But I say put your hand up and make it happen, make it possible. Tell yourself you can do it. I was so nervous when I started in signalling, but I thought if I don’t give it a try, I’m going to have that regret all my life, so I gave it a try and here I am today. I’m grateful for all the opportunities that I’ve had. I wouldn’t change it for anything.