“There’s good news and there’s bad news”, said the desk DMT this morning. “Which do you want first?”

The bad news, it turned out, was that even though I was spare I’d be running all day as already several drivers had indicated they wouldn’t be coming in today (despite me being the first one in the door this morning). The good news, I was told, was that it’s a nice sunny day and some of the time I’d be on surface. Well…ho hum. Not terribly tragic, it can be fun playing with the big trainset.

As it turned out the rest of the day was a bit ‘good news/bad news’ too. The duty I got landed with was actually pretty decent. Didn’t seem to be too many trains and – as promised – there was a nice bit of outside work too. Hang on though, surely there are FAR too few trains for that length of driving time? Closer inspection revealed that while the first half was pretty nice and the second half not too bad, there was a step-back just before my last train of the day. Not good news.

Step-backs are brought in to make sure that the trains move in and out of termini faster. Train comes in, one driver gets off at one end, Second driver gets on at the other and away he goes. It’s quicker than waiting for the first driver to dawdle the length of the platform, stop for a cup of tea and a hello with the other drivers and then stroll back to his train and open up again. The system has its benefits – all that dawdling time is now factored into our working day which is good news. Unfortunately the vagaries of timetabling mean that sometimes a driver has to step back for longer than the usual 5-10 minutes and maybe wait 20 minutes or so. Though at weekends a driver is much more likely to get a train for set period of time and not step-back with it. Now either the guy who worked out today’s duty was drunk at the time or there were some serious issues with moving trains about. Cos I had almost an hour of step-back time before taking a train through half a tunnel and going home. Grrrrrr.

Long step-backs are dull. You sit around in fairly shoddy circumstances with other drivers coming and going all around you and nothing much to do. The vast majority of drivers are incredibly well read thanks to these enforced periods of idleness. And nothing is more frustrating than knowing that you can go home as soon as you have driven a train for 20 minutes – but you’re not allowed to take the damn train for another hour yet. Le sigh. I, of course, tried to wriggle my way out of it by begging the DMT to stick another spare on for the last trip so I could go home. Nothing doing unfortunately as there were no other drivers spare – lazy sods were all ill or summat.

Oh well, as it turned out the waiting was not too bad as there were a couple of drivers sitting around eating grub so nice to have a chat. Things started to look odd after about half an hour when nobody appeared to be picking up one of the trains. We observed for a bit until a phonecall came down asking one driver to take that train and make it his own. At the same time a second driver was told that the next train in would be hers and they both duly disappeared to their respective trains. About a minute later the door burst open and a third driver appeared. ‘Where is she taking my train?!?!’, was the rather indignant cry of the guy who’d just stepped off his train and had it whisked away from him. We cowered and blamed the DMT. Upon phoning, this driver discovered that his next trip had been cancelled so he had an hour off too. Slightly strange because there are fewer trains at the weekend anyway, without going and cancelling some but presumably the lack of staff was having an effect.

After that it got really weird. Reforming was obviously occurring and a couple of times the phone rang and a DMT would allocate a train to the driver supposed to be leaving at about that time. Eventually this system sorts out any late running on the line and it’s a regular event. Except…after the first couple of calls they stopped talking to us. The trains coming in were completely wrong for the drivers waiting but nobody was sorting it out. And what started to happen was a train would sit for a while, a driver would look at his watch and decide it was about time for him to depart and would promptly bugger off with the first available train. It sort of worked but God knows how they are going to sort it all out later when they discover that the trains are not where they are supposed to be cos random drivers just picked whichever one they fancied.

Speaking of which….*ringgggg* goes the phone. “Is that the Train Operator who is looking for train such-and-such?”.

“That’s me”.

“Well sorry about this but your train is over at the depot, could you go pick it up from there?”

“But….but….at the depot???????….what…..huh??????”

“If you don’t know where to go or what to do just ask one of the other drivers”.

*click durrrrrr*

Probably just as well he hung up ‘cos the language was about to change colour. This call came in about five minutes before I was due to take a train off the platform. And the reason I was rather lost for words (unlike me I know) was not because I didn’t know what I was doing – ok I’m new but I’m not that green – but because the depot is a fair walk from the station and I’d have to prep the train and bring it down onto the main line too. About 20 minutes extra work minimum and that’s if I really moved my arse. Now bear in mind that I’d been sitting around for an hour and could have easily gone to pick up the train and get out on time if I’d had sufficient notice. But no, silly buggers was being played and I duly shot up the stairs to surface and headed along to find the damn thing.

Sometimes I suspect it is all just sellotape and string….

PS. This blog was originally going to be about how hard it is working the extreme hours we do – hence the title – but I’m too damn tired to write that bit now. Probably just as well really, given how long it is already.