WHEN Catherine Cahill started work with CIÉ in the early 1980s she had no idea of the cultural changes about to take place within the semi-state.
Achieving the position of station master was simply never on her cards at that time; but that is exactly the position to which she ascended last year, one of the few female station masters in the country today. While the name of the position remains in the masculine, the domination of the company by men over the years has lessened considerably. Once upon a time CIÉ, or Iarnród Éireann as it is today, was completely maledominated. Like the greater society however, the company underwent dramatic change. "I absolutely love the job and Iarnród Éireann has always been and still is a great company to work for," Catherine said.
Station Master for Tralee and Killarney, she is over a workforce of 34 employees and responsible for everything from strict timetables to customer satisfaction in both stations. But when she started working in the CIÉ travel centre in Cork in the early 80s, the Macroom native had absolutely no ambitions in this regard. Women worked in bookings and admin only at that time.
"CIÉ was very much a man's world at that time. I started in administration, women worked only in admin and bookings offices then. I don't believe there was a female in any senior position then. "But there has been a total change of culture since, as with the rest of society. We saw it most obviously from the point of view of increasing equality in terms of going for more and more senior positions." Tralee and Killarney are also home to the country's only female train driver at present, Teresa Carey. One of the best aspects of the job for Catherine remains interaction with customers.
"The customer is my number one priority and I have to say this is still the favourite part of the job for me, ever since I started in Cork. I love meeting customers, talking to them and making sure they are absolutely satisfied with the service." While customer numbers are down, just like in every other Irish business at this time, satisfaction has never been better. "Thankfully, the boom years saw a huge increase in investment in our rolling stock. We have excellent trains now and it makes the job of being on time much easier. Gone is the day when you could be standing in the bitter cold waiting for a rattling connecting train that could have rolled straight out of the 1960s.
"I'm currently studying for a degree in International Rail Management through the Open University." Not enough to be managing two large provincial stations? "I suppose I do like a challenge, but the degree is great from the point of view of seeing how railways are managed in other countries and learning new skills to adapt to the changing needs of our customers.
"That's one of the great things about the company today, it really encourages people to study for new qualifications and to try out new departments within the company. It's a far cry from the Iarnród Éireann I started in when you figured you would stay in the same side of the company for the rest of your career. There's great freedom now." As a grandson and grandnephew myself of two proud lifelong CIÉ men, I grew up hearing about a community, rather than a company, in the kind of warm terms you simply don't hear anyone talking of their employer about anymore.
Meeting Catherine, however, suggests that some things about CIÉ/IÉ have not changed. "Absolutely, it is still like a big family, with many of its employees the descendants of former CIÉ people. My grandfather, who was from Headford in Killarney, was in CIÉ and my father and uncles followed him into the company, just as I followed them.
"My in-laws from here in Tralee were also involved with CIÉ for many years. My husband Denis Galvin was an employee and his father Jim Galvin, from Boherbee, was a train driver for most of his career."
While the children of the current generation may not follow as rigidly in the family business, Catherine says it is still a fantastic employer. "Over thirty years on I still look forward to getting up in the morning to get to work because it is a fantastic employer and there is always something new, some new challenge to meet."