I’ve been working on the railway for the best part of twelve years now. Although the majority of my time has been spent as a train driver, I did a number of jobs before that, including a year as a panel operator (depot signaller) at a South London train maintenance depot, nearly two years working in the control point of a major London termini and, before that, as a Customer Information Clerk. In other words, a train announcer. In truth, I was actually more of a computer operator most of the time, as all of the manual announcement systems were, at that point, moving towards a computerised, automated system controlled from a central location. That’s what I was originally employed on the railways for – to operate those electronic displays at stations throughout South-East England and to ensure that real-time events were updated on the system. Events such as the telex we received informing us that “All trains are at a stand in the Epsom area, due to a naked man on the track throwing ballast at customers”. Oddly enough, we didn’t have an automated announcement for that particular reason for delay to services – but, of course, we were extremely sorry for the delay this would cause to your journey. Although it was a job that quickly grew mundane, with daily repetitive data entry being a large part of the position, I loved it and, besides which, it was a way of getting a job on the railway, something I had wanted since I was a kid.
After my induction and initial training, I was based in offices overlooking Streatham Hill Railway Station in South London. I think I was what you’d call “over keen” and, although I didn’t mean to, I definitely annoyed my slightly older colleagues and supervisors with my unwavering enthusiasm for the job. To be frank, even though I was slightly aware of this, I had been out of work for a little while and was so bloody-mindedly determined to make a success of this fresh start, my priority was with doing a great job rather than to make friends. Of course, over time I calmed down and, being re-located to a busier location in a more challenging role, with some really down-to-earth but hard-working professionals, meant that I was finally able to settle down and perform as part of a team instead of always striving to be a better performer than my colleagues. To do just as good a job as them was more than enough of an achievement at one of the busiest stations in the South East and I was very happy during the time I worked at East Croydon. I even passed the induction test by refusing to make a passenger announcement for “Mike Hunt”. Quality.
The job at Streatham Hill did get a little dull sometimes, especially during the night shifts when there was very little to do between the end of the evening service and the start of the morning service. There was no television, so the entertainment came from the radio – which, even tuned to a station I found acceptable – was tedious and repetitive after a few hours. However, on a Friday or Saturday night, when it was closing time at Caesars Nightclub, you would occasionally get a couple who had hooked up in the club stumble down to the station, believing it deserted, and attempt to get intimate with each other on one of the station benches. Of course, the real entertainment was in waiting until they got to the point that something was about to happen and then interrupting them with a sudden, loud, booming announcement on the PA system that they were being watched and also being recorded on CCTV. The resulting panic and fumbling to re-button clothing was often rather amusing to behold.
Day shifts at East Croydon were always challenging when we had to do all of the screens and announcements manually. The night shifts were still a little dull, but, being a very busy station day and night, there was usually entertainment in the form of the passengers. For example, despite the fact that there were toilets open 24 hours a day, there was still the odd passenger who thought it would be more convenient to urinate on the station itself. Our office, situated on the London end of platforms 3 & 4, had one way glass so we were able to see out, but people couldn’t see in. One person who evidently didn’t know that we were there was a guy who decided to come right up to the window, unzip his trousers and start to empty his bladder against our building. A few seconds later, just as he really got into the swing of things, I banged as hard as I could against the glass right next to his head. Unfortunately, this somewhat startled him and he, in a state of confusion, stuffed his stricken member back into his trousers without first stopping the flow, meaning that he got a really lovely map of Norway on his denim. He didn’t take it too well and started shouting, swearing and banging on the glass. I calmly picked up the PA, informed him that he was on CCTV and that if he didn’t calm down and go away then the police would be called. He got the message and squelched off never to be seen again.
Another incident I remember fondly (although given the circumstances perhaps that’s the wrong word) was back in the day of slam-door trains which still had the compartments at either end of the trains. During one warm, summer evening, around 10pm, there was a London-bound train stood at Platform 1 which hadn’t moved for a number of minutes, was way past departure time and, what was more, seemed to have a small congregation of platform staff around one particular window of the train. I picked up my radio and called the platform staff, who took a little while to answer. When I asked the supervisor what the hold up was, he excitedly exclaimed, with utter delight in his voice, “There’s a couple on this train and they’re shagging!”. Incredulous, I asked if they wanted me to call the police, but the guy just laughed and told me that the “show was over”, but that it was “bloody brilliant and well worth the delay to the train!”. Off the train went, about five minutes late, then, for some unknown reason, the three members of platform staff all developed a sudden urge to go to the toilet. Odd, that.
I have a few more anecdotes, but I think they can wait for another day. Although the pay wasn’t brilliant, I do miss my days of being in control points, having very different challenges every day and generally dealing with the bigger picture of when the service goes wrong. Being a driver means you have specific and very important responsibilities, but you don’t have quite such a need to problem solve and think ahead. Skills required for the two jobs aren’t mutually exclusive, though. My customer service experience has, undoubtedly, helped me understand the wider issues when there are delays and deliver the kind of on-train announcements I would want to hear as a passenger, which is often something we, as an industry, come under fire for when things go wrong. On the whole, driving is my favourite job on the railway so far and, unless I have to leave the “footplate” for health reasons, I’m looking to stay in the driving grade until I retire. There aren’t many people who can say that they’re doing something they’ve wanted to do ever since they were a kid, are there? Although the reality is very different to the childhood dream, it still makes this overgrown kid pretty content with his lot.