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.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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