Mooroopna woman goes from Malaysian jungles to become Melbourne train driver

By Spencer Fowler Steen

Prue Ashforth’s life reads more like an adventure movie script than your average 48-year-old mother from downtown Mooroopna.

But with the lifelong encouragement and support of her parents she has been everything – from an international businesswoman to a new career where thousands of lives depend on her expertise every day.

As an artistic teenager, to make the most of her skills, she had to attend two schools at the same time – Mooroopna Secondary College for mainstream studies and Shepparton South Technical School to refine her design talents.

That took her to Monash University as an architectural ceramics student and later to a Malaysian production company, marriage to a Malay Chinese complete with traditional house on stilts in the depths of the jungle, motherhood, back to Australia to head up a local branch of an international ceramics business, a business brawl in court that she won with the support of Fair Work and a booming building company brought down by betrayal.

With a resumé like that what on earth could Ms Ashforth do next – apart from take a deep breath and maybe put her feet up for a while.

No chance.

Watching TV one day she saw an advertisement looking to recruit future train drivers in Melbourne.

Highly paid and highly sought after it is a job that carries a significant mental burden from day one – the lives of every passenger are in your hands.

At peak times with Metro that can mean more than 1000 people per trip.

But compared with the application process that sounded easy.

“Train driving has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, it’s not really ever been a female role,” Ms Ashforth said.

“I was like ‘you know what, I reckon that would be really exciting, it’s something completely different’.

“So I thought, what have I got to lose?”

With almost 11 000 applicants for just 170 vacancies it appeared she stood to lose just the time it took to fill out the application.

Which she did, and immediately resigned herself to admitting that would be the last she would hear of it.

And then the really hard part began.

Reflecting on her life and its latest change of direction, Ms Ashforth recalled the tough job market when she graduated with her architectural ceramics degree.

“I ended up working in a retail shop selling art materials — it was dead boring doing the same thing every day,” she said.

“I was working there, when a friend of mine told me a Malaysian ceramic company was looking for an Australian designer for tiles.

“We got in contact and I was asked whether I’d be interested, and I thought ‘yeah’, because I was going nowhere.”

Ms Ashforth said she was reluctant, but thanks to advice from her mother Raie she took the plunge.

“I knew I had nothing to lose, what’s the worst that would happen? I could go home,” she said.

“My mum always said, ‘you don’t know until you try’.”

Ms Ashforth worked at the Malaysian ceramic company for four years; designing ceramics for companies such as Beaumont Tiles in the dusty heat of a Third World factory.

One day, she was working out at a gym when she met Joseph Ting, a local Malay-Chinese.

There was, she explained with a grin, an “instant chemistry”.

“We got married over there and had a full-on traditional Chinese wedding,” she said.

“It’s really different to what happens over here.

“On the wedding day, the groom comes to the bride’s home, picks her up and takes her back to their family home .

“It was in their family home, on a pepper farm in the jungle – a wooden house on stilts, with chickens running around underneath.

“One of the traditions is the bride is to be covered with a red umbrella because nothing can outshine her and red is the colour of prosperity.

“And the family gives you gifts such as gold and jewellery.

“Sadly I basically didn’t understand most of the ceremony because I don’t speak Chinese,” she laughed.

But she did embrace the whole experience of life abroad – with no half measures.

“If you’re going to fully experience something, you want to fully immerse yourself,” she said.

“Had I not fallen pregnant I may not have come home.”

In 2001 Ms Ashforth returned to Melbourne to give birth to her first son, Samuel Ting, capitalising on a previous offer from the company to start up an Australian arm of the business.

Single-handedly setting the business up from scratch – with no previous business experience – she dramatically boosted sales despite difficulties.

Although she didn't want to say how much, her mother didn’t mind chiming in with the figures. She said her daughter lifted sales 90 per cent.

Ms Ashforth continued sending her tile designs to Malaysia and running the company in Australia.

But no sooner did she have it all operating smoothly than her company made her redundant – and rubbing salt into the shock wound – refused to pay her entitlements.

Picking the wrong woman altogether with whom to pick a fight.

Armed with the support of Fair Work, she took the business to court and won.

“They made it impossible for me to meet my sales targets, they were too unrealistic and didn't give me the tools to achieve those targets,” she said.

“It was an unfair dismissal.”

The over-achiever easily found another role, this one with flooring store Western Distributors, and after great success there – and a lot of good business experience and training – she joined husband Joseph and they launched their own building company.

Ms Ashforth said they were betrayed by a trusted staff member and the business collapsed.

Shortly afterwards Ms Ashforth said her husband began struggling with depression as a cultural rift opened up between the couple.

“He was trying to assimilate to life in Australia, but he found it difficult and felt isolated without any family here,” she said.

“The way he was brought up was that the woman does everything around the house and looks after the kids, but here women work and share the load of looking after kids.

“He was struggling with depression, but being a very traditional Chinese man, he couldn't face getting help.

“The marriage just over time disintegrated and eventually I just left with the kids.”

Ms Ashforth met her current husband, Kevin Schulz — who was divorced at the time with his own kids — through their sons’ friendship at a Nippers life savers club in Port Melbourne.

“We instantly hit it off — he's the reason I am where I am today today because he was the one who encouraged me to go for the train driving job.”

Invited to stage one of the recruitment she was suddenly taking psychometric, literacy and numeracy entrance tests instead of sitting home watching TV.

And after passing with flying colours, became one of just 170 to make the training program.

Where hard is the bare minimum and only perfection is the pass mark.

Throughout the intensive 43-week course with assessment every three weeks, Ms Ashforth said trainee train drivers must receive 100 per cent in all tests – if you don’t, an assessor verbally confronts you with the questions you got wrong.

She’s also learnt more about the technical aspects of three different train types – including an old, unwieldy 1980’s Comeng – than many engineers; so if a train stops working, she can solve the problem.

“You can have more than 1000 people on your train during peak hour,” she explained.

“I think initially it was overwhelming having that many people’s lives in your hands, but if you do your job well and safely, it’ll be okay.”

In a sobering moment, Ms Ashforth said the first question most people asked when they heard she was becoming a train driver, was whether she was worried about people jumping in front of the train.

“It’s something they (Metro) tell us to expect, we have training on what to do in that situation,” she said.

“You could go a whole career and have no fatalities, and some people are really unlucky and have numerous.

“We’re lucky because we get immediate counselling and as much time off as we need.

“I don’t know how I’d react; it affects everyone differently apparently.

“As a driver, I always tell myself it’s not my fault — I don’t have control of what other people do, I can only control my train.

“I have spoken to drivers who have had fatalities, or near misses, and often a near miss can be quite upsetting because they haven’t meant to get in the way of the train.”

Once she graduates in September, Ms Ashworth will be on probation for six months before being endorsed a fully-fledged Melbourne train driver – on a six-figure salary.

For the time being, Ms Ashforth lives in Port Melbourne with her husband and sons Samuel, 19, and Leo Ting, 17.

Mrs Ashforth said she would never forget the loving support of her parents, Raie and Trevor Ashforth back in Mooroopna, who told her she could do anything.

“It shows that you’re never too old to try something new,” she said.

“What’s the worst that can happen in life if you just actually try something?”