I don’t often write about my job or share that many details online about the railway because employers (in general) tend to be a bit nervous about what employees may reveal about the workings of the company or the professionalism of their staff. However, people always seem to be interested when I reveal that I drive trains for a living. Unless I’m revealing myself to other train drivers… but what I get up to in the privacy of the toilets at Brighton station with other consenting adults is my own business.
I’m going to share some of the popular questions I get asked and my answers to them.
“How do you steer the train”?
My initial response to anyone asking this seemingly rather silly question are two words associated with sex and travel. However, Richard Branson doesn’t seem to know this (and he owns a train company), why should anyone else? However, it is a bit of a ridiculous question for anyone even slightly in the know – or someone who gives it more than a few seconds thought. We don’t steer trains. The trains follow the direction of the rails and it’s as simple as that. What train drivers do is start and stop trains using the power handle and the brake handle (most of the snazzy new trains have a combined brake and power controller) and obey the signals, which are controlled by signallers. Signallers are well-loved by train drivers. Especially when they bring you down from line speed to a red signal for apparently no good reason. Heh. Signallers also control the points at junctions which send the trains towards their correct destination. Us drivers know which way we’re going because there is an indicator on each signal protecting a junction, pointing the way.
“Is there a lot of training involved to become a train driver?”
A couple of days in the classroom, that’s all. Then you’re given your keys, a map and off you go. No, seriously, it takes about a year. There are extensive rules to learn, traction courses so that you’re completely familiar with the trains you drive as well as being able to fault find and fix basic faults in case you’re stuck somewhere on your own as well as practical handling which is learning to and practising driving the train with a driver trainer. You also need to be completely familiar with all of the routes you drive over, knowing all of the stations, junctions and related line/cross-over speeds. Although a year seems like a long time, if you’re coming in from outside the industry, it’s barely enough.
“You get paid loads, don’t you?”
Well… yes and no. Compared to many jobs, yes. Given the length of time it takes to train to be a train driver, the thousands of lives you’re responsible for every day, the anti-social shifts you work and the real risks you face, the salary doesn’t exactly seem that large, so that’s the no. However, I do think we’re fairly paid for the job we do whereas many people aren’t. I worked in entertainment retail before I worked on the railway. The hours I had to work, coupled with the responsibilities I had for the pittance I was given in return means that I am never able to take the fact that I’m in a well-paid job with decent conditions of service for granted.
“Do you have to be a member of a union to be a train driver?”
No, because a “closed shop” is illegal. However, I am a union member (ASLEF) and believe that collective bargaining as well as solidarity between employees is important to maintain our conditions of service and the fact that we are fairly rewarded for our labour. I believe that more employees in different industries should unionize and then they too would enjoy better pay and conditions of service. However, this does sometimes involve people putting personal gain on the back-burner and taking a stand for the good of all of their colleagues which, sadly, seems to be a trait lacking in many people these days. Unions aren’t perfect and not every member agrees with the action of his or her union, but we’d be a whole lot worse off without them – and I’m proud to be a member of ASLEF. I’d certainly encourage anyone new to the grade to join and stand in solidarity alongside the majority of his or her colleagues.
“Leaves on the line… wrong kind of snow… what a joke!”
OK, that’s not a question, more like a statement, but it’s still annoying. During autumn, leaf-fall dramatically affects the running of the trains, by the leaves falling on the train, sticking to wet rails and then being reduced to a slippery mulch by being squashed by trains. This results in a substance similar to black ice coating the metal rails, meaning that the metal wheels are unable to grip as well, either when attempting to accelerate or attempting to stop. Earlier this month, in East Sussex, a train slid for two and a half miles past the station it was supposed to stop at. Does that sound like something to treat as a joke? Thankfully, all of the signals were green, so the route was cleared, but if it wasn’t there could have been disastrous consequences. There are lots of things being done to combat this problem, at great expense, so it’s not something the industry just allows to happen, but weather conditions and the unpredictability of when the leaves are actually going to fall mean that you can’t plan for everything. As for the “wrong kind of snow”, yes – that was bloody stupid. What should have been said that the filters to stop the snow entering the motors on the new units at the time were inadequate, not to blame the type of snow. Bit of a PR disaster, that one.
“How fast do your trains go?”
The ones I drive go 100 miles per hour. But not all the time. That would make getting on and off quite difficult.
“Do the buffet staff bring you a cup of tea and a sandwich while you’re driving?”
Ha ha! Buffet staff? What buffet staff? No, we don’t have buffet cars, trolleys staff or even a guard on our train. The company I work for operate DOO (Driver Only Operation) trains, which means that, most of the time, we’re in sole charge of the train, with no other staff on board. If you’re lucky (or unlucky if you haven’t bothered to buy a ticket), then Revenue Protection Inspectors will be on board. But they certainly don’t bring us a cup of tea. Bastards. (Just kidding, guys!)
“Do you enjoy your job?”
Basically, yes. Like any job, it gets boring sometimes. It requires a high level of concentration for long periods of time over lines you travel on time and time again. The real trick of a long railway career (I’d imagine – I’ve only been driving for just under seven years) is to not switch off at any point… which can be difficult when you’ve been getting up at around 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. for seven days running, working shifts of up to ten hours. Sometimes, at that point, it’s really difficult to “enjoy” my job… but, generally, yes, it’s a good way to earn a living. Certainly the best job I’ve ever had.
“Are there any vacancies? What qualifications do I need? Do I need to pass a test?”
Don’t ask me about vacancies, I really don’t know. If you’re interested in becoming a train driver, visit the websites of train operating companies (TOCs) and apply online if there are. You don’t need any specific qualifications, just basic English and Maths, but the assessment and selection process is quite difficult and fairly rigorous. Although there aren’t any specific qualifications a potential trainee train driver needs, a high level of common sense is essential, as well as being bright enough to learn and retain the huge amount of information thrown at you during your year of training.
“Is this the Luton train?”
Yes. Yes it is.
“Hey, why didn’t you stop at Mill Hill Broadway?”
You asked me if it was the Luton train!
“But I wanted Mill Hill Broadway!”
Why didn’t you say that then?
“Because the Luton trains always stop there!”
“Does this train go to Brighton?”
No, it goes to Sutton.
“But it says Brighton on the side of the train!”
It also has grease on the wheels, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to Athens.
“Do I have to change for Luton?”
Nah love, you can wear the same old shit you’ve got on now.
No, Andy – pleased to meet you.
“Does this train go to Luton?”
Yes, it does.
“Are you sure?”
I hope so – I’m driving it!
Naturally, the last few exchanges are things that drivers would like to say when we’re asked some seemingly silly questions and we wouldn’t really respond like that. Well, not many of us would, anyway. Definitely not me – I’m generally Mr. Customer Service when I have the uniform on and passengers deserve to be treated with respect, as long as they’re not being openly abusive. Even then, railway employees will try their level best not to respond to provocation. Most of us try to be as professional as possible and I work with a great bunch of people, in all areas of the business, who take a lot of pride in what we all do together. After all, it’s not just a job… once you’ve been working on the railway for a little while, it becomes a way of life.