I was asked recently what it is like to be a traindriver. Not what it’s like when I’m there doing my job but what is it like when I’m a passenger on a train. I’ve spent some time thinking that over because it taps into the idea of how this job has changed my general perspective on life. And I’ll start with my apologies as I’m not going to answer that question now. I’m still thinking about it. But I will write about how my perspective on transport has changed. The rest can come later.
Before I worked for LUL I was your typical passenger. I didn’t really consider the tube as anything more than a means to get from A to B and which sometimes inexplicably shut down for no reason I could fathom. Now obviously that has changed hugely due to increased knowledge of how the whole thing works. By which I mean how transport in general works and also how specific lines work. I had no idea, for example, that so many lines run over shared track or cross over shared junctions. Which meant that the idea of a stalled train in West London impacting on my journey in Central London just didn’t work for me. Now that I know how it connects up I can appreciate that the announcements are not just vague excuses but realistic explanations of what’s going on. I think this has led me to be more patient when I’m travelling on the tube or on other forms of transport. I am much more aware that I don’t really know how it links up so I try to be less critical when things go wrong.
Signal failures were another thing that used to puzzle me. A signal fails. And…what? What does that actually mean? And why the hell is it holding up half of London? Of course now I know that railways are set up to be failsafe. When something fails it fails in the safest possible manner. The safest thing for a train to be doing is not moving. So if the brakes fail then most of the time that means the brakes cannot be released. There is the odd obscure defect which means the train would still move with a failed element of the braking system but other systems then kick in and stop everything. It takes a lot of effort to get a train moving when the brakes have failed. Equally, it takes a lot of effort to get the line moving when a signal has failed. You might ask why signals fail in the first place which is a reasonable question. Basically signals are lights which go on and off. Thousands of times a day. Snap your kitchen light on and off a few thousand times each day and see how well it does (you should also ensure your kitchen is filled with the dust of a century and is open so that thieves can steal both your wiring and the emu you have in your chest freezer to get the full effect).
Signals fail at danger. “Danger” doesn’t mean the same as red but for the purpose of this entry we’re going to assume it does. The first implication of a failed signal is that the train will come to a halt on a red. The next is that I have to obtain authorisation to pass the signal at danger and that can take time if the train in front of me has not finished working through that procedure. The third is that we’re going to be held up further by required safety systems kicking in once I have obtained that authorisation.
On London Underground red signals have something called a trainstop which remains up when the signal is at danger or has failed or when the trainstop itself is broken. The trainstop is a ronseal sort of thing and when a train goes past it, it knocks a lever called a tripcock that hangs down under the train. If we skip a few complicated bits we get to the end result that the emergency brakes will go on. Then there are some more complicated things going on that I can’t be bothered to go into but what happens next is that the train is restricted to travelling at under 10mph for 3 minutes. The reason for this is that the basic function of a signal is to state that there is a train ahead. If the signal has failed or if there is a train ahead then it will turn red. So how do you tell if it’s one thing or another?
The simple answer is that you don’t. We have systems in place so that The Voices can have an approximate idea of where trains are but the reality is they are working blind. They very much rely on drivers giving accurate information about location and even then won’t trust us. I say this with no animosity whatsoever as this is an area where they should be exercising extreme caution. If I go past a red signal and can see there’s nothing ahead for the next seventeen miles they still will not allow me to travel at normal speed. This is yet another example of a failsafe system on the railways. The Voices don’t know exactly where the trains are so they must default to assuming there is a train ahead of me. I can state that there is no train ahead of me but I might be mistaken or there might be one right around the corner so I must operate as though there were a train there. And the person who would be least happy about driving at speed into the back of another train would be me. Not that I’d survive the experience what with working in what is known as the crumple zone.
One feature of an urban metro system which is markedly different to the regular railway is the gap between trains. Our trains get astonishingly close to one another and this is is a two-edged sword. It does allow us to move lots of trains very swiftly through an area. But if there is a signal failure then all of those trains must be moved very slowly and one at a time because we don’t know exactly how far in front the next train is. This is why we have the speed restriction in place. Trains have a timer which stops it going above a certain speed after the trainstop and tripcock have done their work. At 9mph an alarm sounds. At 10mph all the brakes go on again. There’s also a rule stating that after passing a signal at danger the train must travel at this slow speed for two signals which are equipped with trainstops and which are showing an indication to proceed. In some areas with lots of signals that means that each train can be moved past the failed signal and worked through to resume line speed after three minutes. In other areas where there are long gaps between signals it might take twenty minutes to work each train through.
Such lengthy delays aren’t good for anyone. Passengers get held up for ages or go to another line which may then struggle with the volume. Drivers are all in the wrong place and so are trains which means that scheduled crew changes can’t take place and the impact on the service can last for hours. If it is going to take so long then often it’s better to shut the whole area down. If it’s going to take an hour to get three trains through then it might be better to turn off the electricity and have a Technical Officer walk down the track to fix whatever went wrong. It may take him an hour or even two but the longterm delay is lesser. And of course, The Voices will try to run as much of the line as they can. There are many places on each line where trains can turn around and cross over points in order to travel in the other direction. If a line runs from A to G with a signal failure near point C then there’s lots of space to run things. So trains may run from A to B at one end and from D to G at the other. The bit in the middle doesn’t work but often passengers can be taken to a point where they could use other lines or buses to get through that bit.
Finding another route is probably difficult at times. My mental map of London is mostly tunnels with a few bits of Surface. When I go upstairs I frequently get lost. The single most important thing I need when I’m going somewhere new is some form of map otherwise I will wander around for ages. I know where my tunnels go but above ground there are alleys and side streets and all manner of weirdness. In an ideal world I would just follow my tunnels and it’d be simple but some clot has invariably put buildings on them which makes it tricky to walk in a straight line. Not without being arrested for trespass anyway. Given that I’m such a moron with navigating the upstairs world I am probably a little more aware of how easy it is to become disoriented when you are thrown out at an unfamiliar station. When making the announcements to detrain I always try to remember to tell passengers that if they’re not sure to speak to station staff. Station staff have nifty things like maps and journey planner and local knowledge. And I always am very precise in saying speak to station staff because I have none of those things and additionally am lousy at directions. You can ask me and I’ll be pleased to help but really London, God help you.
There’s a fine line between giving out informative information and being too vague or too detailed. It’s very hard to get it right for everyone and I suspect we probably are too vague at times. I absolutely adore the station staff who provide local knowledge during shutdowns. If the next station is closed and they’ve scribbled down which buses run to it then I can tell people. If not, then I’m left making the more vague announcements. Which don’t really help and which may be at odds with what station staff are announcing. Ever been in a situation where one announcement has talked about a points problem and another has mentioned signal failure? Annoying isn’t it? We’re giving out two stories so one must be a lie.
Actually it’s the same thing. Points direct trains one way or another. If they are not set right then the train derails leading to potential injury. So points are protected by specialised signals which are set to danger unless the Signaller releases it. If the signal breaks then the points can’t be changed. If the points break then the signal can’t go to green. It’s the failsafe again, if we’re not initially sure what the problem is then both systems go to failure because we don’t want to carry passengers through the area until we’ve made sure the points are set in the right direction and will not move as a train is moving over them. Sometimes they can be fixed remotely but (depending on how upgraded the line is) sometimes it means a person is required on the scene to physically secure the points in position. As a general rule of thumb (and assuming there’s no shutdown) if you hear “signal failure” and you know it’s not far between stations at your current location then it can be easier to wait with the train – if you hear “points failure” then it’s time to leave. For the former we have systems in place to prevent catastrophe and most of the time those are sufficient to get a slow service running. For the latter we are at much greater risk of doing something that injures passengers and that means we’re sure as hell going to stop everything and schlep down there to fix it even if it does completely stuff our service.
Of course, this knowledge isn’t available to most people. Most people are our typical passenger who just want to get from A to B and who don’t have any reason to know how railways work. I try to give as much relevant information as possible when I make announcements but that’s a tough call. Even here where I’m trying to explain I’m skipping wildly past much of the technical detail because I’m aware that many people who read this blog aren’t railway people. I’ve not even mentioned the legal issues and the rules that the Railway Inspectorate hold us to and how they very necessarily slow things up in order to keep a safe environment. My knowledge is good for me as I better understand how transport systems must operate when things break. It’s also better for my passengers as I can try to convey information about how to work around problem areas. What’s not good is that even with knowledge I feel it’s often best to be a bit vague in some announcements because it doesn’t help to be specific. Making a judgement over how detailed a truth I should tell is difficult but be assured that whatever announcement I’m making it’s the truth. We don’t dick around for no reason and we just want things to work well, breakages to be fixed quickly and to get on with running our railway. After all, who would want to be sitting on red signals, babysitting trainloads of passengers in tunnels and shunting through all sorts of rules and regulations when they could be out there zooming?
PS: sorry Shakteh, next time (maybe).