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.
Terrible photograph courtesy of the author.