So today we visited the control room. This is where it all happens, the cog that holds the railway together. This is the place where the keenest minds juggle trains and signals as though it were nothing. Mentally, I compare The Voices to magicians who simultaneously juggle axes, spin plates, skip double-dutch and at the same time plan out a dinner party for royalty. Where you or I will take cover amid crashing crockery and fervently hope we might keep our heads. Watching them work is seriously impressive even on a dull day.
As ever when I visit a control room, today was not a dull day. There were signal failures, major points failures and I believe two defective trains to deal with. I’m not entirely sure as it was a little difficult to follow along the massive line diagrams and the phone and radio calls all over the place. I don’t know what it is with me and visiting control rooms but whenever I do then it’s chaos. This cannot be blamed on me as I was just sitting on a table at the back enjoying the show. Today’s was the best yet but I do often wonder what a control room is like when everything is working as it should.
For those who have never visited, most control rooms have a bank of large screens fixed to a wall. Each displays a section of the track and signalling which matches to the next so that the whole area covered is visible. We use a system called Trackernet which is similar to systems used for tracking missiles. Each train is shown as a coloured rectangle with a number in it. Signals are green and red circles and stations are larger rectangles. It’s fascinating just to watch trains move along the line from screen to screen – not least because of the varying sizes of the signal sections. A train might start out from a platform and will stretch out to cover the section it’s entering and the one it’s leaving. And at some point it will stop and this long spaghetti string of train will suddenly snap back into a little box.
In front of all this is a desk with monitors, telephones, radios, timetables and often a swear jar. This is where The Voices sit and although they are usually quite friendly to meatworld drivers they barely had time to glance up today. The calls just kept coming and it’s astonishing how well these guys know the line and how they can mentally slot in trains almost without looking. There was one hairy moment when they tried to direct three different trains into one space but they soon sorted themselves out and went into some sort of borg-like state. Initially there had been some calling back and forth between Voices but they suddenly seemed to know what the others had done without being told. I watched one Voice take and make multiple calls while scribbling down notes in his logbook. At no point did he take his attention from what he was doing or even glance at his colleagues. But he still managed to make another call and tell a new person what he and the other two were doing! And it wasn’t just him, the others were doing it too! I am more than slightly boggled at the apparent ability to hold three conversations at once and to retain complex information from all three in order to have a fourth – presumably whilst tuning in to another two! The mindmeld was eerie.