Train driver, motorbike enthusiast and rock music fan, Tosh McDonald is not your average union boss. But then you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Chris Bond met him.
Tosh McDonald is looking out of a fourth floor window at the Trades and Labour Club in Doncaster on to the train station below.
It’s a familiar sight. He knows all about the history of the surrounding railway yards and talks with pride about the fact that both Flying Scotsman and Mallard, two of the world’s most famous locomotives, were built in the town.
He points to platform 4, the signing on point for train drivers like himself, though his other role – Tosh is president of the train drivers’ union Aslef – means he hasn’t seen the inside of a cab much in the past 12 months.
“I’m still a train driver but it’s getting very difficult now in my third year as president to keep doing both jobs,” he says.
With his long white hair, biker T-shirt and tattoos he looks more like an ageing 70s rocker than the boss of one of the country’s biggest transport unions. “People keep saying I look like Rick Wakeman, but I hate prog rock,” he says. “I’m more of a Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones man.”
As boss of Aslef he’s found himself in the news in recent months with his union embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with Southern Rail that sparked a wave of strikes. The industrial action revolved around Southern’s plans to bring in driver-only-operated trains where the driver, rather than the conductor, opens and closes the doors.
Both Aslef and RMT union raised concerns about job cuts and safety issues but last week a deal was finally brokered, much to the relief of long-suffering commuters.
The dispute thrust Tosh into the spotlight. “Just the other day I was walking through King’s Cross and a guy tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘all solidarity mate’ and I get people coming up to me on the Tube and shaking my hand sometimes.”
There’s been the odd insult hurled at him, too. “Doing the job I’m doing I know I’m fair game. I’ve had one person call me ‘scum’ and I’ve seen some stuff on social media but I just view them as keyboard warriors.”
As a thick-skinned Yorkshireman he’s dealt with far worse. Tosh was born in Doncaster, where he still lives today with his second wife, Nikki.
His early life, though, was traumatic. His mother left when he was just three and when he was 11 he found his father dead on the sofa. He was raised by his grandparents and it was his grandfather who shaped his political outlook.
“He was a miner and he used to tell me about the 1926 General Strike, he talked about the soup kitchens and said they went through that so that we wouldn’t see it and then in ‘84 they were back with the Miners’ Strike. I think that probably politicised me more than anything else.”
Growing up he had little money but used his paper round to save up to buy his first moped, a Raleigh Runabout. “The petrol tank was behind the seat and the seat was like a big bicycle saddle. I used to sit on the tank and lie on the seat with my feet up on the number plate and sometimes I might reach 30 miles an hour.”
It sparked a love of motorbikes, and Harley Davidsons in particular, which he still has today (he even builds his own). He flirted briefly with a biker gang when he was younger but says it wasn’t really for him.
“I didn’t want to kick out at society I wanted to change society. I’m a rebel, but a different kind of rebel – maybe a rebel with a cause.”
School was a largely forgettable experience and he left at 16 without a qualification to his name. He became an apprentice welder for an engineering firm before getting a job as a freight guard at Doncaster Carr loco.
He took to it straight away. “You’d sit in the old brake vans at the back of the train and it was great, you’d trundle to Lincoln at night with the fire going if it was cold. If not I’d be sat out on the veranda watching the world go by. You’d see sunsets and sunrises, it was fantastic.”
He started working for British Rail in 1979, a month after Margaret Thatcher, his political nemesis, became Prime Minister. “I hated her so much I used to set my alarm clock an hour earlier just so I could hate her for an hour longer.”
It’s said tongue in cheek, as his reference to Jeremy Corbyn being the “Messiah”. But as an ardent socialist the latter belies his belief that Labour lost sight of its roots under Tony Blair.
“Since winning the election in 1997 to losing in 2010 we lost five million votes. Some good things did happen under the Labour government but I know a lot of people left the party because they became disillusioned.”
He believes Corbyn has galvanised those on the left. “When I went to speak at rallies during his [leadership] election campaign the number of young people and those coming back to Labour after years of isolation was really encouraging.”
He thinks the political landscape in this country is beginning to change. “I think middle ground politics is dying on its feet and people will either go right or left,” he says.
“In Doncaster, 69 per cent of the electorate voted to leave the EU. That’s not because they’re all Ukip supporters or bigots, it’s because they feel left behind.”
Tosh is no less passionate about the state of the country’s rail network. He became a train driver in 1991 and having worked on the railways for nearly 40 years he believes unequivocally they should be re-nationalised.
He points to the success of the East Coast mainline franchise in the five years it spent in public ownership. “During that time the fare rises were the lowest in the country, compared with this January when they’ve gone up higher than anyone else.”
He highlights the fact that several European state-owned railway firms have invested in our network because it makes them a profit. “We think that money should stay in Britain and be re-invested in the railways. I don’t think even the most dyed-in-the-wool Tory believes the railways should be run by the French, Germans and Italians.”
Many people, though, who recall train journeys back in the 1970s and 80s shudder at the memory, and Tosh agrees.
“I don’t look back at British Rail through rose-tinted glasses. There were job cuts and service cuts but done properly public ownership works. It never had the investment the railways get nowadays – but just imagine how good it could have been if it did,” he says.
“If you look at all the other railways around Europe and how good they are, they’re state owned. They’re not run for profit they’re run for the people.”
But while the railways are an inextricable part of his life they will never replace motorcycles at the top of his affections.
“Whether I’m riding a bike, working on a bike or polishing a bike, that’s my downtime. I’ve never dreamt about a car or a train, but I do dream about motorbikes.”