Virgin Trains let me ride up front with the driver, so here's everything I learned that day

Before departure. Image: Jonn Elledge.

Funny thing is, I never wanted to drive a train. You’d think, given my intense nerdery about things that run on rails, this would have been at the top of my list of childhood ambitions, but no. My interest in trains is basically just a branch of my interest in maps: how this stuff actually works has never really bothered me.

On the whole, then, I’ve not given much thought to what train drivers actually do. Okay, they sit up front and make the trains stop or go at the appropriate time. But what are they doing, minute by minute? What does the job actually involve?

On a foggy Tuesday morning recently, Virgin Trains was kind enough to let me find out. The company invited me to sit up front on the 0900hrs service from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly as its driver, Nick, went about his business. Here I am sitting in his chair and looking unbelievably pleased with myself about it:

They didn’t let me press any buttons. Given that the first time I took my driving test I crashed – before getting out of the test centre car park – this is probably for the best. 

Before I get to describing the journey, though, let’s talk about the train. There are two types of trains running on Virgin’s West Coast services. The slower ones are the diesel trains that run on the non-electrified bits of the network (to Holyhead, say, or Blackpool). 

My train, though, is a Pendolino (Italian, for “little pendulum”). They’re powered by the 25,000 volts provided by the overhead lines, and they tilt, allowing them to take corners at higher speeds. The trackside-signs of the West Coast Mainline, as it turns out, list two different speed limits: up to 125mph for the Pendolinos, but up to just 110mph for other, inferior trains. 

The mechanism by which the train does this is more complicated than one might imagine. I’d assumed it was an entirely automated process – that the trains leaned automatically thanks to gravity, in the same way as cyclists do when they round a tight corner – but no.

In fact, there are two parts to the tilt. The track itself can lean a bit – up to around 5 degrees – so that all trains can tilt slightly. What’s special about Pendolinos is that the carriages can lean further on top of that: up to another 9 degrees. The reason this allows them to go faster is not really anything to do with safety, but because of passenger comfort. When a train leans left without tilting, passengers will find themselves thrown to the right. Tilting the carriage itself throws in another force which counteracts that.

This process isn’t automated. The train collects data from transponders, known as balises (French for “beacon”) in the middle of the track, which tell an on-board computer how much the train should lean in the next section. That master computer then passes the data onto slave computers in each carriage, and each then leans accordingly. What happens if there’s no signal? The train automatically rights itself – and, Nick says cheefully, all the plates slide off the tables in first class and smash.

(If you think all this sounds terribly clever, consider something less clever. A design flaw in the Pendolinos, concerning the position of the vents from the tanks beneath the toilets, means that their corridors have historically had a nasty tendency to smell of sewage. Eugh.)

Anyway, back to our journey. The driver’s cab is surprisingly spacious. There are four of us along for the ride this morning – Nick the driver; another Nick, Nick Westcott, from Virgin management; Chloe Wittet, from the press department, and me. Considering this, it isn’t too cramped up there. Sure, there are only two seats, and Nick the driver has bagsied the best one – but none of us find ourselves getting more personal that we’d otherwise like.

Terrible visibility that day. 

As we’re waiting to go, the team explain a few bits of railway terminology. This morning we’re on the “down” line. In the peculiar geography of the railways, “down” means away from London, “up” means towards it. There are a few exceptions to this – cross country routes, that steer clear of London entirely, centre instead on other regional centres, like Derby or Manchester; while Thameslink, which runs right through London, switches at Farringdon, which means, confusingly, that all lines into Farringdon are up lines, and all lines out of it are down ones.

I’m still getting my head round this, when someone decides to tell me about signalling. There are what look like traffic lights alongside tracks, but they’re more complicated than the ones on roads. Green and red mean exactly what you think; but in between there comes double yellow (start reducing speed) and yellow (be prepared to stop).

The reason for this is that it’s pretty hard to stop a Pendolino going at 125mph. In the event of an emergency, its stopping distance is about a mile and a quarter. For planned stops, says Nick, he’s generally thinking about four or five miles ahead. 

Just before 9am, the signal for our train turns to green; it’s accompanied by letter – X, in this case - which tells the driver which route he’s taking out of the station. Nick takes the brakes off, then turns the power to the engines on, and the letters “RA” appear next to the X – “right away”; get on with it, basically  – and we’re off.

“Bit slippy this morning,” says Nick.

The journey out. Video courtesy of Chloe Wittet/Virgin Trains.

It’s foggy today – very foggy; visibility is no more than a few hundred meters – which means I can’t see very much from the cab. It does, though, highlight that a big part of the driver’s job is simply knowing the route that he’s driving: the location of every bridge, points and slight bumps in the track, and knowledge of how you should respond to them.

What would happen if you didn’t know these things, I ask? “You might end up crashing the train,” replies Nick.

“Well they wouldn’t be in the cab,” Nick Westcott jumps in. Drivers are tested on their route knowledge in a simulator every two years. They also have to sign a document declaring that they know the route. (A second document on show in the cab is a form of route plan, telling them the times they should be reaching stations, or hitting other key points on the route.) “Drivers are paid as much for what they know as what they do,” Westcott adds.

We’re pretty slow out of Euston – just 25mph, a deliberate limit which, paradoxically, means you can run more trains through one of the busiest sections of track in the world. We pass through a couple of tunnels, at which point everything goes dark and I realise for the first time that there are no lights in the cabin. We also pass a few trackside workers in high visibility jackets. Nick sounds the horn to signal his presence; as a man (and they are all men), they raise an arm to show they’re aware of him, but otherwise barely look up from their work. By the time we reach Queens Park we’re doing 50mph. By Wembley we’re at full speed. 

Every now and again something beeps, and Nick presses a button. This is the dead man’s device, which checks – this is a bit dark – that he hasn’t died, mid journey. When it beeps he has seven seconds to respond, before the brakes automatically go on and the computer alerts the train manager. If he doesn’t respond, he’ll also get a call from the signaller in charge of the train. (Like a banker, he has two phones – one internal to the train, and a second, external one that uses a beefed up mobile signal called GSM-R, to ensure it can receive calls and text messages even in tunnels.) 

And if he doesn’t respond even to that? This has happened, the Virgin team tell me: on a freight train, run by another company. On that occasion, the railway authorities had to bring another train alongside, to literally see if the driver was okay. Sadly, he wasn’t. Luckily, there were other crew on the train to take control of the situation.

 

The face of a man who loves his job. 

This has got a bit dark, so let’s talk about something happier. Nick has been a train driver since 1990, initially on the freight lines, before joining Virgin in 2000. Shortly after Milton Keynes, where the train diverts onto the “old line” – the route which bypasses Northampton, and which has enough twists that the Pendolinos largely get it to themselves – he points to a signalling box as we pass. “Banbury Lane,” he says. “That’s where my dad used to take me when I was seven or eight. He knew a guy in the signalling box.”

Did he work on the railways himself, I ask? “In a works at Eastleigh,” Nick tells me. “He always wanted to get on the footplate” – that is, to drive – “but when the opportunity came up, he had to turn it down, and it never came up again. But I took him out a few times.” Nick, I sense, did spend his childhood wanting to drive a train. 

Virgin is recruiting drivers at the moment. It’s a tough ask: driving a train requires you to be able to cope with long periods of boredom, but to react quickly when required. You need to be happy with your own company for long stretches, without being a loner. You need to have an understanding family who don’t mind you doing shift work. Oh, and however tired you are – even if you got up at 2am to get to work – you need to remain alert at all times. 

Before getting the job, you have to pass the Safe Concentration & Attention Tests (SCAAT), which requires you to do a series of tasks quickly, correctly and in the right order. More applicants fail than pass; fail twice, and you don’t get a third go. Nick Westcott tells me that recruitment drives tend to focus on ex-police or military personnel. 

You do get a lot of buttons to press in this job.

Despite these barriers to entry, it remains a popular job: the company has had 1,100 applicants for just three jobs recently. The vast, vast majority of these were men: of the firm’s 150 drivers, only around a dozen are women. “They don’t even apply,” Westcott says. “It’s an industry-wide problem.”


We’re nearly at Stoke-on-Trent, where I’m getting off to catch an up train back to London. We’re a few minutes late: we were held up by another train, near Rugby, and there’s a general air of grumpiness in the cab that the signallers didn’t give us priority. “We’re so tightly timetabled that it’s really hard to make time back,” says Nick.

First the signals for Stoke come into view; then the station itself. But Nick is bringing the train to a halt long before that. He’ll take the train onwards to Manchester, get a couple of hours rest, and then do a return journey late that afternoon. And that's another shift done.

I loved my morning in the train – honestly, it’s the most fun I’ve had at work in ages, and my job is a pretty spurious one at the best of times. But, I can’t say it made me regret my lack of childhood ambition. Driving requires concentration, of the sort of which I’m incapable. No radio; no phone calls; absolutely no Twitter. For long periods, nothing much will happen, but you need to be able to snap into action at a moment’s notice. I don’t have it in me.

But clearly there are those who do – and who, I suspect, get exactly the sort of kick out of it that their childhood selves always thought that they would. ”I’m lucky,” Nick had told me, somewhere round Watford Junction. “I enjoy every day.” And I could see he meant it, too.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Terrible photograph courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

“Black cabs are not public transport”: on the most baffling press release we’ve seen in some time

An earlier black cab protest: this one was against congestion and pollution. I'm not making this up. Image: Getty.

You know, I sometimes think that trade unions get a raw deal in this country. Reports of industrial action almost always frame it as a matter of workers’ selfishness and public disruption, rather than one of defending vital labour rights; and when London’s tube grinds to a halt, few people will find out what the dispute is actually about before declaring that the drivers should all be replaced by robots at the earliest possible opportunity or, possibly, shot.

We should be a bit more sympathetic towards trade unions, is what I’m saying here: a bit more understanding about the role they played in improving working life for all of us, and the fact that defending their members’ interests is literally their job.

Anyway, all that said, the RMT seems to have gone completely fucking doolally.

TAXI UNION RMT says that the closure of the pivotal Bank Junction to all vehicles (other than buses and bicycles) exposes Transport for London’s (TfL) symptom-focused decision-making and unwillingness to tackle the cause of the problem.

So begins a press release the union put out on Thursday. It’s referring to a plan to place new restrictions on who can pass one of the City of London’s dirtiest and most dangerous junctions, by banning private vehicles from using it.

The junction in question: busy day. Image: Google.

If at first glance the RMT’s words seem reasonable enough, then consider two pieces of information not included in that paragraph:

1) It’s not a TfL scheme, but a City of London Corporation one (essentially, the local council); and

2) The reason for the press release is that, at 5pm on Thursday, hundreds of black cab drivers descended on Bank Junction to create gridlock, in their time-honoured way of whining about something. Blocking major roads for several hours at a time has always struck me as an odd way of trying to win friends and influence people, if I’m frank, but let’s get back to the press release, the next line of which drops a strong hint that something else is going on here:

TfL’s gutlessness in failing to stand-up to multi-national venture capital-backed raiders such as Uber, has left our streets flooded with minicabs.

That suggests that this is another barrage in the black cabs’ ongoing war against competition from Uber. This conflict is odd in its way – it’s not as if there weren’t minicabs offering a low cost alternative to the classic London taxi before Uber came along, but we’ve not had a lengthy PR war against, say, Gants Hill Cars – but it’s at least familiar territory, so it’d be easy, at this point, to assume we know where we are.

Except then it gets really weird.

With buses stuck in gridlock behind haphazardly driven Uber cars – and with the Tube dangerously overcrowded during peak hours – people are turning out of desperation to commuting by bicycle.

Despite its impracticality, there has been an explosion in the number of people commuting by bike. Astonishingly, 30% of road traffic traversing Bank Junction are now cyclists.

Soooo... the only reason anyone might want to cycle is because public transport is now bad because of Uber? Not because it’s fun or healthy or just nicer than being stuck in a metal box for 45 minutes – because of badly driven Ubers something something?

Other things the cabbies will blame Uber for in upcoming press releases: climate change, Brexit, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, the fact they couldn’t get tickets for Hamilton.

It is time that TfL refused to licence Uber, which it acknowledges is unlawfully “plying for hire”.

Okay, maybe, we can talk about that.

It is time that black cabs were recognised and supported as a mode of public transport.

...what?

It is time that cuts to the Tube were reversed.

I mean, sure, we can talk about that too, but... can you go back to that last bit, please?

RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash, said:

“RMT agrees with proposals which improve public safety, but it is clear that the driving factor behind the decision is to improve bus journey times under a buckling road network.

“Black cabs are an integral part of the public transport system and as the data shows, one of the safest.”

This is all so very mixed up, it’s hard to know where to begin. Black cabs are not public transport – as lovely as they are, they’re simply too expensive. Even in New York City, where the cabs are much, much cheaper, it’d be silly to class them as public transport. In London, where they’re so over-priced they’re basically the preserve of the rich and those who’ve had enough to drink to mistakenly consider themselves such, it’s just nonsense.

Also – if this decision has been taken for the sake of improving bus journey times, then what’s wrong with that? I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d be amazed if that wasn’t a bigger gain to the city than “improving life for the people who take cabs”. Because – as I may have mentioned – black cabs are not public transport.


Anyway, to sum the RMT’s position up: we should invest in the tube but not the buses, expensive black cabs are public transport but cheaper Ubers are the work of the devil, and the only reason anyone would ever go by bike is because they’ve been left with no choice by all those people in the wrong sort of taxi screwing everything up. Oh, and causing gridlock at peak time is a good way to win friends.

Everyone got that straight?

None of this is to say Uber is perfect – there are many things about it that are terrible, including both the way people have mistaken it for a revolutionary new form of capitalism (as opposed to, say, a minicab firm with an app), and its attitude to workers (ironically, what they could really do with is a union). The way TfL is acting towards the firm is no doubt imperfect too.

But the RMT’s attitude in this press release is just baffling. Of course it has to defends its members interests – taxi drivers just as much as tube drivers. And of course it has to be seen to be doing so, so as to attract new members.

But should it really be trying to do both in the same press release? Because the result is a statement which demands TfL do more for cab drivers, slams it for doing anything for bus users, and casually insults anyone on two wheels in the process.

A union’s job is to look after its members. I’m not sure nonsense like this will achieve anything of the sort.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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