It's Sunnier On The Southern Region

Because Driver H. Potter Has Finally Decided to Get Behind A Keyboard Again.


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Skating Practice at the Sharp End

The lot of a train driver is, by and large, not entirely arduous. The hours are unsociable, the demands on one’s concentration are unremitting, the costs of a mistake can range from extreme embarrassment all the way through to going home in a pine box. There’s a reason we are well paid – when all is said and done, we are responsible for hundreds of lives with each journey. That said, the pay is good, the pension is bloody good, I work with the finest bunch of fellow loons on the railway and I treat the entire South West Trains network as my own private train set. So where others arrive at the depot, bleary-eyed, at 04:00 in the morning thinking either “work” or “sod this for a game of skittles, I want to go back to bed” I arrive at the depot thinking “play time.” But there are days when I find myself thinking “can I go home now, please?” Thursday 5th December was one of those days.

Firstly, a mention of the weather on the morning 5th December: absolutely sodding awful. Windy, that rotten fine rain that never really seems to get going but soaks everything. Not the nicest morning to be up and about, but hey, I’ve known worse. I booked on for Wimbledon No.14 duty at 04.54 (for me that means being out of bed at 03.30 – playing with the world’s biggest train set involves a few sacrifices, folks). I was booked to run my train empty to Guildford via Epsom, then run back to London. All perfectly routine and a pleasant enough way to start the day. Things started to get interesting almost a soon as we left the mainline at Raynes Park. Firstly, there was lots of wheelslip – the train flatly refused to grip the rail. Any application of power was met by a two-part chorus of rapidly rising motor noise, followed by two loud “pops” from the motor coaches and completed by a brief bout of cursing from the leading driving cab. As every driver worth their salt knows, if you can’t get a train to get going then you’re likely to have trouble getting the thing to stop as well. That morning showed me some of the worst railhead conditions I have seen in my time as a mainline driver – I approached Ewell West at 50mph, applied the brake and, well… not a lot happened. The speedometer dropped to zero, the brake cylinder gauge fluttered, everything went deathly quiet and I sat watching a red signal at Epsom Junction get bigger and bigger in the windscreen.

“That’s novel”, I thought.

The long wait for the brakes to bite, which in 9 cases out of 10 doesn’t take more than around 10 seconds, feels like a lifetime. It’s astonishing just how much thinking your brain can get done in 10 seconds when it really tries – thoughts like “I really wish this bloody thing would slow down”, “why hasn’t the box cleared that bastard signal?” or “ah – apparently adrenaline is brown and comes out of your arse.” The same was true at Bookham – attempting to reduce speed for a permanent 40mph speed restriction allowed me time to enjoy watching Ye Olde England scooting past the windows whilst the speedometer stubbornly maintained that the train wasn’t actually moving.

The most fun, though, was climbing Horsley Bank. The railway climbs from Effingham Junction to Horsley station fairly steeply, and trains leaving from Effingham heading for Guildford are against the collar for a good mile. Normally the bank represents no great obstacle – it’s quite normal to expect 45 to 50 mph at the top. That Thursday morning, though, we just managed 11mph at the top of the bank. I honestly thought that we’d stall half-way up. Imagine Horsley Bank in the dark, my cab window down, me leaning out of the cab listening to wheels spinning up as I applied Notch One, shutting off, listening to the wheels spin down and grip again, opening up, wheels spinning up again. My finger jammed onto the “apply sand” button, knowing that the sand was making little if any difference and mentally rehearsing the “We’re at a stand on the bank and they won’t grip” conversation with Guildford box. As it was we crept over the brow of the hill into Horsley station, and I remember leaning out of the cab (as in “leaning out almost to the waist”, which counts as an afternoon in the gym for most drivers) and thinking that I’d not seen that much smoke coming from the wheels of a motor coach for years.*

We finally got to Guildford 11 minutes late. I stomped up the length of Platform 1, not at all happy with the world, leaves, Network Rail, leaves, slippery rails and 455s which lay vapour trails. My guard, grinning, asked lightly about the smell of burning when we came into Horsley. My reply can best be described as ending with the word “off”, accompanied by a grin of my own. In passing I mentioned that keeping an ear open for “2-2″** on the start bells might be an idea, since I wasn’t entirely confident that stopping at our booked stations would be easy. I was proved right after leaving Effingham Junction. The line runs downhill, passing underneath the M25 before curving left on the approach to Cobham & Stoke D’Abernon station and we normally brake just before the bridge over the River Mole, but I thought “brake early, Potter.” I did. Not a lot happened. I looked at the speedo (which had once again decided that we were stationary) I looked at the brake gauge and thought “Sod it.” The emergency brake was applied. I sent “2-2” to Moro (my guard), then contacted him and said “Where ever we stop, don’t open the doors.” Then I contacted Woking signal box to tell them that Issac Newton was now in charge of the train. We finally came to stand about 4 coaches shy of the platform after sliding for the better part of half a mile. Someone somewhere in Cobham very sportingly took a picture of my train standing in a cloud of smoke – no offense, sir or madam, but I’m afraid I did mutter an oath in your direction. By the time we reached Waterloo we were nearly 12 minutes late, the train had wheels like 50 pence coins and I had decided that, for today, I’d had quite enough of playing with my train set.

I’ve never known a morning like it. Fortunately training came to the fore – hand-notch where the units slip, brake early when you think it’ll slide. And added to that is the unspoken but comforting rule “if you think it won’t stop, bang the bloody lot in.” We got through the day, and through a few other dodgy days after that without serious incident. The passengers grumbled (they tend to), the staff got a few more grey hairs (except the bald ones, who live in the hope of grey hairs) but thankfully we had no more harm than a lot of units that badly needed a visit to the wheel lathe. To those who have grumbled about lack of units and late running on Twitter, I will merely pose this question:

“In a choice between late running and short trains, or normal running without due care and attention, which would you prefer?”

If it’s the latter, folks, I recommend that you never join the railway and re-examine your priorities. As far as I and like-minded colleagues are concerned, we’d rather everyone got home safely. And we intend to make sure that that’s always the case.

Finally, a Merry Christmas to you all, dear lovely readers. Blessings and good will to you all – even the people who grumble on Twitter.

Peace and fondest regards,

Potter.

* – I find myself remembering a conversation with an old friend, now long dead, at Wimbledon, when trying to get an errant train out of the shed. The train’s handbrake was jammed on and any attempt at taking power result in wheelslip, noise and smoke. I was in the cab, cursing.

“Stop making the wheels spin”, said Rick.

“You find me a notch between One and Off and I’ll bloody use it”, I retorted.

You’re still missed, Rick. Martin Grennan still asks me without fail “What’ve you broken now, Potter?” whenever I see him. You’d chuckle.

** – “2-2” on the bells – do not release powered-operated doors. For more detail, click here.


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Ronnie Biggs

With the death of Ronnie Biggs let us not canonise another career criminal, but remember with quiet reflection the families of Crewe Driver Jack Mills and Crewe secondman David Whitby whose careers were curtailed by the robbery of a Glasgow to London postal train on 8th August 1963.

Rest in Peace, gentlemen.


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Winter Sunlight on A Memorial Stone

I was going to start this by roughly describing the events that happened 25 years ago today just outside Clapham Junction station, but then I thought “No.”

The people who read this will know the events well enough, and those who don’t can easily Google “Clapham Junction Crash.” The accident that happened at Clapham claimed 35 lives. Today was about remembering those who perished that morning, but just as much about remembering those who were left behind. This morning I was stood on the east side of Spencer Park, overlooking the deep cutting that takes the South Western mainline from Clapham towards Wimbledon, as a public service of remembrance was held on the 25th anniversary of the Clapham Crash. I wasn’t alone, not by any means. Railway staff were there in strength, as were members of the London Fire Brigade, the police, former pupils from Emmanuel School who were first on the scene, and of course some of the survivors. Many were there to pay their respects, some to remember lost friends and colleagues. One man, though, was there to say thank you.

The service lasted 30 minutes, it was cold but the sun shone with impeccable timing as the Chaplain of St George’s Hospital said “may the Lord make His light to shine upon you”, there was a quiet dignity to the whole affair upon which neither the muted rumble of trains nor the sound of London traffic could impinge. We were slowly starting to disperse when I noticed a man, perhaps in his mid-50’s, dressed in a grey shirt, black tie and dark coat, stood alone from the rest of the crowd, weeping. In the midst of all the handshaking and fellowship it felt wrong. I asked a friend if he had a tissue. Because men are inevitably poorly prepared for such eventualities he said “No.” I asked a few other people and a few clean sheets of tissue were duly produced. I walked across to the gentlemen and offered them.

“You look like you could do with these”, I told him. “Thank you”, he responded and began to wipe his eyes. I asked him, in that slightly daft way we all do when faced with someone crying, if he was OK. “This is the first chance I’ve had to thank the Fire Brigade”, he explained. “It’s been 25 years.” He pointed towards the cutting where the trains had collided. “They got me out of the wreck. I was sat in the front coach of the Poole train.”

I can’t quote accurately beyond that, dear reader, because that revelation rather knocked me sideways. I remember putting my hand on his shoulder while he gathered himself together. I asked if he would be OK to make it to where ever he was going afterwards. Oddly I didn’t ask his name. It seemed somehow impertinent. I suppose it might have been impertinent to have approached him at all – but how could I leave anyone in that place, on this day, so obviously in distress? “It’s brought it all back”, he said. I asked him once more if he would be all right, and he assured me that he would. We shook hands and went our separate ways. As I sit here writing this, I regret that I didn’t wish him a Merry Christmas.

I’ve told more than one person that Clapham casts a long shadow over the rail industry. Today it is mentioned as the catalyst that brought a new culture into Britain’s railways. it brought in acknowledgement of the pressure under which staff worked, it ushered in new ways of working, new attitudes towards stress and fatigue and the consequences of ignoring them. But today it became personal to me. Today it became about a man who said thank you for a tissue and a gesture of support from a stranger. And about a glance down into an empty railway cutting, and the words “I’m lucky to be here.”

I think that’s all there is left to say.

Clapham Memorial

RIP

PostScript: I now know that the gentleman I spoke to after the ceremony was Mr Lee Middleton, from Winchester. You can see him speaking to ITV News here:

Mr Middleton, in the sincere hope that you may some day read this: Merry Christmas.


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Back To It, Then.

The first day of the month of December in the year of our (well, yours; he’s nothing to do with me) Lord 2013. And it’s not snowing. Now the Daily Express promised me it’d be snowing by now. But the Daily Express doesn’t tell lies, folks. I’m sat behind a keyboard for the first time in a long time; to what end have I made this momentous decision, I hear you ask? Well, dear reader, I have noted that the Internet is criminally under-served in the sphere of Anorak Blogging and this is a situation that cannot be allowed to endure a moment longer.

The year or so since I last wrote have seen a good few changes on my patch of railway. For a start the alliance between Network Rail & SWT has been formalised, resulting in changes both superficial and substantial. In superficial terms it means that all the managers have been given new name badges (in some cases also crayons and shoelaces), and in substantial terms SWT have become far more involved in the process of running and maintaining the routes that they operate over. I must admit I was one of those who looked at the idea of a deep alliance with Network Rail with a good deal of cynicism, but I have seen a good deal of common sense thinking trickling down to us scrotes on the ground. For example, SWT are now providing the crews to run the Network Rail Leaf Buster MPV trains that help to keep the rails clear of leaf mulch during the autumn months. As the autumn gives way to winter, these trains will be retro-fitted for laying de-icing fluid on the 3rd Rail to keep trains running in the event of snow & ice (assuming the Daily Express weren’t telling porkies) – and all crewed from within the company. NR & SWT commendably decided “one of us has the trains, the other has the drivers – why are we going to a third party to provide train crew when we can do everything in-house?” As the old hands have wryly observed, this represents the Re-Invention of the Wheel – infrastructure and operations under one roof. Less bureaucracy, more efficiency and quicker responses to problems. And it appears to be working. MPVs are out and about, doing more mileage and getting more work done than in previous years. Of course this is the first year that SWT have crewed the trains, and lessons being learned now will be applied to next year to make the process smoother. Hopefully this is the start of SWT & NR bringing more work in-house. Could we be running engineers trains and ballast workings within the next few years? From this driver’s stand point I hope so. The variety of work increases, we get more traction and routes to sign off on – more work and more knowledge to use means more job satisfaction for me. Mind you it’s not as though I wasn’t enjoying myself in the first place.

It would be remiss of me not to note that, from my point of view, the infrastructure over which we run seems to be becoming increasingly fragile. I can’t recall signal failures cropping up as often as they have in the past few months. I’m not qualified to comment on whether the alliance has made this either better or worse, or whether it’s simply a case of ageing infrastructure requiring a little more TLC than previously. None of you are blinkered to the fact that the London & South Western mainline isn’t bullet-proof and, with such a demanding timetable to run, when a failure occurs it doesn’t take long for the effects to be felt a long way from the source of the problem. On a national scale it does beg the question of why Network Rail are underspending on their maintenance budget, but that’s probably a subject for another blog. It’s not all bad news so far as infrastructure is concerned, though – solid improvements are coming in the shape of platform extensions and the (final) re-opening of Platform 20 at Waterloo International. The rolling program of engineering work to replace rails, points and signals goes on over-night and at weekends – with luck the passenger will see a consequent improvement in their railway. I’ve always thought that the number and vociferousness of complaints about railway breakdowns is inversely proportional to how reliable the railway normally is – dealing with these complaints when they happen is where another positive has crept in; Twitter. Initially Twitter was the domain of a few enthusiastic staff, and in the event of problems (remember the cable theft a few years ago that stopped everything from Waterloo to Woking for 5 hours?) a few of us were Tweeting information to help get our long-suffering passengers home. SWT soon cottoned on; at last count their Twitter feed has 75,500 followers. They Tweet engineering work updates, individualised responses to passenger queries and even details of which of our Class 458 units have been fitted with Movember moustaches. Twitter has broken down a wall between the operator and the passenger – its pleasing to see the company embracing social media to such good effect.

The company are very decently providing me with new toys for Christmas, too. The new Class 458/5 units are slowly coming on stream after the usual protracted engineering problems, and we inherited our first two Class 456 units from Southern only two days ago. The 458/5s are recycled trains from Gatwick Express, rebuilt to our specifications, and from what I’m hearing they have the potential to be a bit special. More room for passengers, re-geared for 75mph and with extra oomph to the motors – to quote a friend of mine, once we sort the technical gremlins which make them currently “as reliable as a chocolate oven”, they will be a pleasure to drive. It also helps that they actually look good – they have a purposefulness in our outer suburban livery that they lacked in the old colours. I have been reminded that they look unfinished without the cowling around the couplers; I agree with this entirely and will be writing a stiff letter to the managing director*. Regarding the reliability issues with the first two units, it’s only fair to note that, given Wimbledon Park’s prowess at turning sow’s ears into silk purses (please see the trophy room at Wimbledon Park – many Golden Spanners, folks) South West London could well be looking at a step-change in railway performance, Time will tell. The Class 456s will be deployed to strengthen busy trains between London, Woking and Guildford, as well as Shepperton and the Kingston & Hounslow Loops – handy two-cars that will also find themselves on the Guildford to Ascot route to allow the current lightly-loaded 4-car trains to be deployed to better effect elsewhere. A refurbishment program for these trains will bring them into line with our current suburban fleet. So on the toy front, it appears Potter will be busy in the New Year.

That’s your lot for now, folks. The battery is dying on my trusty laptop and it’s about time I went for a bite to eat. Catch you soon. And for the benefit for the one person who asked, the 8-car Desiro carrying the legend “Potter Birthday Express” on the 16th September did indeed have yours truly at the helm. If I’m going to work on my birthday, everyone’s going to know about it.

* – Don’t worry Tim; I’m not allowed access to stamps and envelopes, so you’re safe.