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.

 
 
 
 

Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.


In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?