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I had hoped never to write this entry. I’ve pondered it many times and always concluded that it’s too complex a subject to deal with. In my mind it starts out fairly simple and I can work out how to explain things but then I realise I need to add in a bit more detail and a bit more and a bit more and after a while there’s too much to deal with. Then I go and eat some Jaffa Cakes and think pleasant thoughts. But today – due mostly to techiebabe I’m going to bite the bullet rather than the biscuit. I’m only going to discuss a tiny area though. But here it is. It’s time to talk about timetables.

Many people are surprised when LU staff mention timetables. We don’t publish the majority of them but they do exist and the majority of the time they are adhered to. It is very much not a case of just turning up whenever and taking your favourite train somewhere nice. It’s all painstakingly worked out and if all goes to plan then it runs like clockwork would run if it were digital. The timetable is our equivalent to holy scripture. It must be adhered to at all times unless there are exceptional circumstances. There are some things which disrupt the timetable. One of those things is passengers, another is things breaking and a third is when we accidentally lose something important to the proceedings like…oh…hmmm…I dunno…like a traindriver.

As is perfectly normal I was zooming along today pretending to be Tubehulk when the radio chirruped. On answering I spoke to a flustered signaller who enquired if the stepback driver for my train was in the cab.

“Nope”, was the reply, “Do you want me to do an announcement to see if he’s in the saloon and get him to contact you?”

“Oh…um…no, that’s ok, driver. It’s just he’s not at the terminus to meet you and he might have been lost*. I’ll…um…ok, we’ll work something out. Out”.

And with that he ended the call which was fortunate as I was laughing too hard to have answered him anyway. Why was I laughing? Let me explain.

The general system of driving trains is to take it one way, change ends, then bring it back the other way. Where this changes is at peak travel times in the morning and evening. Rather than wait for the driver to nip to the loo, grab a cup of tea, walk all the way up the platform and dodge in and out of the lost tourists needing directions it is much simpler to use a system we call stepping back. Driver 1 brings a train into the terminus and gets off the south end** of the train. Driver 2 immediately gets on the north end of the train, the signal clears and off he goes. Driver 1 then sorts himself out and walks to the north end of the platform just in time for Driver 3 to bring his train in and get off at the south end. Driver 1 then jumps into the second train and off he goes. He has “stepped” backwards in the timetable by exactly one train.

This is an excellent method of reducing turnaround times at termini. Often the end of the line is a place where there are relatively few passengers so rather than have trains hanging around there, we swiftly get them moving to the busier parts of London. The one slight issue with the system is that you’re reading this and it hasn’t occurred to you to wonder where the hell Driver 2 sprang from.

Driver 2, as it happens, hasn’t done anything yet today. He’s just started work. And his first instruction is to get his butt to the end of the line and wait for Driver 1 to bring the train in. There are three methods of carrying out this instruction:

1) Travel down on a train in front of his own train. A good method and guarantees that he will be in position even if there are unexpected problems on the line.

2) Travel down on the train he is to step back to. Risky as disruption could mean that reformation could happen unexpectedly and he’s in quite the wrong place. I’ll discuss reformation more in a second. The step back driver will generally travel at the rear (north end) of the train so that he doesn’t have to trudge up the platform at the terminus which would rather defeat the whole purpose. I’ve done this in the past. Sometimes it worked fabulously and I jumped up and clicked my heels together at my own cleverness. Sometimes it went spectacularly badly and there was much shouting. I no longer do this. Draw your own conclusions as to the relative ratios there.

3) Get a bit held up and somehow end up travelling on the train after the one he is to step back to. In which case he’s fucked. This method will necessarily lead to reformation.

Although I’m not allowed to speak for London Underground I feel confident in saying that whilst we have no particular thoughts either way on the dissolution of the monasteries, we are mad keen on reformation. Reformation is a normal part of each day. It happens at specific times. Generally just post-peak where any delays or disruption caused by suddenly transporting millions of people all at once are smoothed over. If the trains are all in the wrong places then The Voices will consult the timetable. Train 1 is sitting in the terminus but that should be Train 5? Fine, they will call up Train 1 and tell the driver to reform it by changing the number to 5. This train then runs according to the timetable and if the driver should have been doing something different then another driver will be swapped in at the earliest convenience. This is one of many reasons we have a few spare drivers around each day.

In the meantime, the original Train 5 has finally got to the terminus 20 minutes late. Train 9 should be leaving about then so another reformation takes place. Put simply, reformation is just taking the physical railway and renumbering it so that it matches what the theoretical timetable says should be happening. Swapping drivers about is just as important as swapping train numbers. It is as essential that the drivers are following their timetable as it is for the trains to do so. Any deviation can cause all sorts of problems.

This is why the signaller sounded so flustered. If the step back driver is somehow lost then no stepping back can occur. If no stepping back can occur then the line is screwed. And if the line is screwed then The Voices are going to have to work very hard indeed to try to keep up with the timetable. And why was I laughing so hard at this unfortunate possibility? Because aside from the vision of impending chaos and confusion which popped into my head I knew one crucial thing. I was timetabled for a meal break.

*You’ll note the driver was not lost. He had been lost. By somebody else presumably. Left in a cupboard or accidentally chucked in the bin or something.

**Trains always have a north end and a south end even if the line runs east to west. Just go with it, ok? We have enough problems with concepts like ‘up’ and ‘down’ without factoring in madness like compass directions.