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,
* – 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.