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RailStaff Insights – Celebrating neurodiversity in rail

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Neurological differences such as autism are natural variations of the human brain and should be recognised and respected. In recent years, great efforts have been made to promote neurodiversity in the workplace and make rail a more accessible industry for neurodivergent staff. RailStaff spoke to GWR’s Ewan McDermott about his experience of autism and how it has impacted and inspired his career in rail.

Thanks for joining us Ewan. To start, could you give us a brief overview of your current role and your career in rail to date?

Ewan: I joined the railway straight from school at the age of sixteen on an Operations Apprenticeship with GWR. That was in 2018 and I was based in the Bristol area. During the 18-month apprenticeship, I undertook roles in a customer facing rotation onboard trains and at different stations, which sets you up with a wide range of knowledge and understanding for any future role you wish to progress to in the future. I completed my apprenticeship when I was 18 and relocated during the Covid-19 pandemic for my first job on the railway based in Newbury in the Thames Valley.

I relocated back home a year and a half later, and I’m now a train dispatcher based at Bath Spa station. Bath Spa is the busiest two-platform station in the whole of Europe, with a passenger flow of many millions per year. As well as my day job, I also work on heritage railways with locomotive diesel and steam. I’m also a regional chair of the Western Region, for Young Rail Professionals.

Ewan McDermott.

How did you become interested in working in rail? What specific aspects of working in the industry appealed to you?

Ewan: From a young age I had a strong interest in the railway and the broader technical aspects associated with it. The structure of the industry, and the day-to-day reality such as routines and following strict rules and procedures, really helped me. That said, no two days are the same and sometimes unexpected challenges can occur during your shift, and I enjoy this type of variety.

My personal goal is to develop my broader knowledge and my particular interest is the operational aspect of the railway. This is an area I’d like to progress further into in the coming years. Whether it’s becoming a guard, or progressing to becoming a driver, these are goals I have had my eyes set on for a very long time, and I am determined to achieve them.

Have you encountered any challenges or barriers related to your autism in the workplace? If so, how have you addressed them, and how have you been supported by your employer?

Ewan: I’d say, there are a few misconceptions or stereotypes around autism. For example, people may say “You don’t look or act Autistic” or “I never knew you had autism”. However, I’m very fortunate to have been supported with my differences.

I’d say my Autistic tendencies help me in my day-to-day job, attention to detail in regards of certain things, following structure, and strict rules and procedures, especially in the safety critical work on the railway.
We are all different and it’s important for all of us to embrace our individuality because that’s what makes us who we are. I’m really pleased that the wider rail industry is advocating for neurodiversity in many different ways, to help support those in the workplace and to showcase their different talents and attributes. The training that we get regarding autism and different neurodiverse differences, has helped strengthen our approach to the needs of passengers. This kind of advocacy is crucial for all industries.

What tasks or responsibilities within your role do you find particularly enjoyable or well-suited to your strengths?

Ewan: Structure and procedures are parts of my work that I enjoy and which are are crucial to safety critical work. My autism helps me with this, as does my extreme attention to detail. This includes, for example, speaking to the signaller and retaining that information, as well as carrying out tasks during high pressure, disruptive events that can occur on the railway. I really enjoy the operational aspects of the railway, as it keeps me focussed and it’s in my general interest. Non-technical skills are a huge thing I use to help me perform my day-to-day duties. I’m a huge advocate of risk-triggered commentary (RTC), and the many types of defensive thinking, such as pointing and being extra diligent.

Have you found any support networks or resources that have been helpful to you in your rail career as an autistic person?

Ewan: Absolutely! GWR has a disability working group that supports those with autism as well as those with different types of disabilities – both visible and non-visible. It’s fantastic to see this happen in our industry. I’ve also worked closely with other charities supporting those with autism. It’s helped me a lot, as I can relate to those who struggled like I did when I was younger.

Overall, how well do you think the rail industry accommodates and supports autistic/neurodiverse individuals? What more can be done?

Ewan: The support for autistic and neurodivergent individuals has got a lot better and continues to develop to a very good standard. I look forward to seeing how well this progresses in the future. It is really important for individuals to advocate and share their stories, in order to inspire people in the future. When I was 16, I wrote books about autism, and I still advocate for neurodiversity in my spare time. It is extremely important to break the stigma and to showcase the wider talent that the railway has to offer.

What advice or insights would you give to other autistic individuals who are interested in pursuing a career in the rail industry?

Ewan: The advice I’d give to other autistic individuals is to simply go for it and always believe in yourself. Joining the railway at a young age was the best thing I have ever done, as it has made me very confident, taught me so much about myself, and given me lifelong skills.

Before I joined the railway, I did multiple types of work experience, as well as joining a heritage railway back in 2016. This gave me experience in customer service as well as knowledge on how to deal with the public. In 2019, I then progressed to work on the locomotives, where I still am learning so much about different types of railway operations.
The advice I’d give to someone before they apply to join a train operating company is to simply do their homework before applying. Think to yourself “Where do I want to see myself in the future?” Research the company you apply for and the core values that company exhibits.

Another route to get into the rail industry is through apprenticeship and graduate schemes, which give you so many worthwhile qualities later in your career. They can also provide a firm structure as well as an understanding of the operational / customer service parts of the industry. It’s a great way to look ‘behind the scenes’ of the industry.
Set yourself goals and work hard for them. Great things can happen when you believe in yourself!

Image credit: istockphoto.com / GWR / YRP