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Nov. 2nd, 2011

The Sky Is Falling!

Ah Autumn. What a wonderful season. Unless you're a traindriver. Or a passenger. Or a trains manager or Signaller. Or in any way associated with or reliant on the railways. Then it's sheer hell.

We are on our leaf fall timetable at present. For us that means we run the trains a few minutes early and will do so from early October until around December. Leaf fall is a bit of a problem on railways and every year we have to work around it in a variety of ways. Re-jigging the timetable is one and there are some practical things we can do in terms of maintenance of the rails and our land but the autumnal onslaught is something we struggle with every year. Basically it's because leaves are bastards.

Leaves. Green things on sticks. Big sticks and ones with root systems but that's what it boils down to. The problem is that they don't stay there. Come the autumn they get flung off and blow about a bit. A fair quantity find their way onto railway tracks and at that point it's a slippery slope to doom.

The thing we hate about leaves is the sap. As discarded leaves naturally rot down they release tree sap. This stuff is incredibly slick and sticky and when you are running a vehicle with metal wheels balanced on metal rails then that's bad news. Every time the motors are applied the wheels have a tendency to spin uselessly for a bit before they can gain traction. Aside from the cumulative effect of many tiny delays caused by trains struggling to get started this causes damage to the wheels. This is bad enough but the issue is compounded because wheels which are damaged or flatted in one or more areas can in turn cause damage to the track. So not only do we have trains struggling to move and gradually accumulating bigger and bigger delays but we have both trains and tracks needing more than usual maintenance.

As ever, when there is a problem starting there is also a problem stopping. With slippery track it is incredibly simple to gently apply the brakes and have every wheel instantly lock up. The train then has the potential to slide along until friction eventually stops it. Naturally this will result in flatting of the wheels and again, that sort of damage is best avoided.

There are some solutions. We don't have a perfect solution but we have a few things going on to give us a fighting chance in the annual battle with nature. The first thing we do is cut short turnaround times at termini. In plain english that means the train will leave a few minutes early. This allows the train to run slightly slower but to still arrive at major interchanges around the same time. By running more slowly it obviously takes less time to bring the train to a halt in stations so that drivers don't need to brake so harshly. Another thing we do is change driving style. Braking starts much further out from a station and is much more gradual. Depending on the distance between stations I could start applying tiny amounts of brake from as far out as halfway whereas normally I'd not even think about it until I was a trainslength or so outside.

This slow, measured approach is crucial to keeping things moving. It adds a little extra to each journey time but on balance it cuts down delays. By keeping speeds down and braking gently and early trains are less likely to overshoot or slide straight through stations. It also reduces the likelihood of a driver being horrified as they slide straight towards a red signal. If you read my previous entry on failed signals you'll remember that when a signal is passed at danger (whether authorised or unauthorised) there is a procedure in place to maintain safety. And that this procedure takes quite a bit of time to complete. So accidentally flying through reds because the wheels are locked up is going to cause a huge delay (not to mention that the system instantly loses a driver as they are removed for interviews and investigation and if there is no spare around that means putting the train away too).

If you read that entry you'll also remember that if we are in any way not sure what's going on we have to default to the safest method of working. In the case of Signallers if they suddenly get a whole bunch of signals turning red for no apparent reason they have to assume it's because a train entered that area - even if there are no other indications of a vehicle being there. I mention this because the little leafy demons are responsible for delays in another way. The buildup of sap and decaying leaves can disrupt the signalling - essentially it short circuits the signals and these go to danger. The Signaller is then obliged to run the system with a failed signal and that takes lots of time to process.

One thing we try to do is to keep trees cut back on our land. Ideally they'll be no closer than a metre from the rails so that falling leaves will not go on the track. We have crews out for much of the year cutting back back large sections of foliage but it's a sisyphean task. With large amounts of LUL track being outdoors it's very difficult to strike a balance between maintaining wildlife habitat and keeping a working railway. And even though we cut back harshly, trees will have sprung up again within a few months. Even if we completely stripped our land of trees we'd still have leaves blowing in from other areas. So unless LUL can get a bylaw passed to institute treemageddon within the M25 boundary then we need to think up another means of dealing with leaf fall.

And we have one. Two, actually. One is to pressure wash the track. This is a tactic used by many companies which run on Network Rail track but with us being powered from the rails it's obviously not ideal to run a train through dumping water everywhere. So instead we lay something called Sandite. This is a mixture of sand which provides better traction and an enzyme which helps disperse leaf sap. Sandite comes from hoppers on a small train which pours it directly onto the running rails. It is not a perfect solution and needs replacing at least once per day but it makes a big difference in how easy it is to get trains running properly.

Various train operating companies also have systems on trains which are designed to stop the wheels spinning uselessly and locking up. It rather depends on the age of the train and who designed it as to whether this works well or not. Some are ok, some are a bit pants. But every little thing that is done to counteract leaf fall can give us a tiny advantage.

I think this is a war we are never going to win. Most of the time we are victorious in the yearly battles with hopefully only a few casualties in terms of sliding trains. But leaves are never going to leave and it's going to be at least another month before the Horror of Autumn is over. Just in time for the Horror of Winter with iced up power rails, frozen points and (you guessed it) sliding trains. It never rains but it pours.*

*If it rains we get slippery track and.... ;-)

Oct. 12th, 2011

What the hell is going on?

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).

Sep. 3rd, 2011

Sensational Butterflies at NHM

It's September and I just want to give one more plug to the Sensational Butterflies exhibition at the Natural History Museum. They are closing on the 11th so you don't have much time left if you want to visit. It only costs £3.50 for an adult so its very affordable.

I've been a few times and seen something new every time. This links to my earlier entry (with photos) and below are a few more images of some of the living exhibits:

Sep. 1st, 2011

It's perfectly ok to pull the passenger alarm

I've been on holiday recently. I've been driving for two days now and both have been somewhat chaotic in one way or another. Signal failures, unexpectedly high passenger numbers, late running, odd instructions, lost trains, trains doing the timetable in reverse and panicky managers who think they might have lost a couple of drivers somewhere have been some highlights. It's good to be back. :-)

Less good was an incident last night. I'm not going to say much about it as I'm hopeful that the police will be able to make some headway and this will come to court. But the upshot was a smashed up train and a passenger with head injuries. And a conversation with another passenger about how, when and why to use passenger emergency alarms. As I've had this conversation several times over the years I'm going to try to explain how the system works in the hope that word will slowly get around and people can stop worrying.

Worrying, is a big thing with pulling emergency alarms. They are big and red and carry all sorts of ominous warnings about dire consequences if they are misused. Lot's of people worry that their situation is not serious enough to warrant pulling the alarm. If you are that sort of person then please get on a train and pull an alarm - because you are not the sort of person those warnings are aimed at.

There's an odd circumstance where the people we want to tell not to pull emergency alarms are the very people who are most likely to pull one. These are the people who get frustrated that their train has run slowly or been delayed and who pull the alarm and run away when they arrive at their station. This doesn't bother either the driver or London Underground in the slightest as we were all there anyway. What it does is to further delay the other passengers as we reset things and try to find the person having the "emergency". Conversely, the people we most want to pull the alarm are least likely to do so. On several occasions I've noticed people racing up the platform and not attempting to board the train. Given the odd behaviour I've waited and when they reach the front they'll explain that there's something dreadful going on in my train. After they've got their breath back of course. I've never been able to fathom why they didn't just pull the alarm and I have absolutely no idea how to rectify this situation but I'll give a few examples of when it's appropriate to pull the alarm. But first, the science bit.

Each handle is linked into a few electrical systems on the train. When pulled this has three main consequences. The first is that the brakes apply. Not an emergency brake but the train will stop. The second is that an alarm sounds in the driver's cab to tell them why their train has suddenly stopped. Traditionally this alarm is fixed at the typical London Underground setting of 'OH MY GOD WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE' and you'll be lucky if the driver doesn't immediately expire of fright at the sound of it. Fortunately the alarm on my train is more gentle, meaning I can be of some practical help. And the third thing that happens is a light shines on the car in which the alarm was pulled. There's often a second alarm in the car too though not on all trains. This helps staff locate the area where the alarm was pulled.

So the alarm gets pulled and the train stops. What happens next depends on the circumstances. If any part of the train is in a station it will stop there, the driver will inform the Voices and have station staff sent down to assist and an announcement will be made letting everyone know what's going on and asking whomever pulled the alarm to make themselves known to staff. That last bit is important - we're not psychic. And on many trains we have a facility called talkback which means the driver can speak to the person who pulled the alarm and get details of what's going on.

If the train is not in a station then much of the above takes place but in a different order. The train will brake but the driver is able to override this and keep it moving in order to get to the next station. It is astonishingly rare that we would investigate an incident outside of a station as it is too difficult to get any further assistance down the tunnels to the train. If we need ambulances or the police or to evacuate then that's all much more easily done from a station.

So when should you pull the alarm? Well ideally, not when you've woken up and realised you've just missed your stop. And not when you've heard the chimes, sprinted to force your way through the closing doors and then realised that you've left your mates behind on the platform. Just get off at the next station and wait for them to arrive. Also, not when the train is sitting between stations for a long time and the driver has already told you that there is going to be a lengthy delay. These things are all annoying and frustrating but they are not emergencies; they're just the minor trials of life.

Left your kid? Pull the alarm? Pile of puke/blood/poo/other on the floor? Pull the alarm. We don't want biohazards around our passengers. You or another passenger injured or taken seriously unwell? Pull it. Fire, smoke, burning smell - we really like it if you pull the alarm then. Really. Fires of some sort are reasonably common on an electric railway but we really like to stop them before they really start. It is my opinion that London Underground is permanently on fire in some way but that's no reason to go ignoring it.

What else? Abandoned luggage? Yes, we like to know about that. The vast majority of the time the thing is perfectly safe. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times we've had dangerous things left. But please still pull the alarm because whoever lost it would like it back. It's incredibly easy to leap off your train and forget something. If it's something smaller like a wallet or shoes or whatever then just let other passengers know you're going to hand it in and give it to a member of staff. Often we have staff on platforms making announcements so conceivably you can nip out and hand over a wallet and get back on your train without any delay.

Remember what I said about losing your friends? Well that's not an emergency but if your friends happen to be children or similarly vulnerable people then pull the alarm.

The last reason I can think of is for general disorder on the train. If there's a fight going on near you or if someone is being threatened. If the train is being vandalised then pull the alarm. If you see something dangerous like an open external door or someone falling from the train (rare, but it happens) then pull the alarm. Essentially if you feel in danger or you perceive that harm may come to another person or the train then please pull the alarm. We won't be cross.

Two more things: Consider all the reasons I've given for which the emergency alarm should be pulled. Many of those are going to be times when the train cannot continue to run with passengers. Either because it is damaged or because there is potential danger in the form of biohazards or fire or similar. So if you hear the driver of your train make an announcement about a passenger alarm then please be aware that you may be asked to leave the train quite soon. And the faster you can do that the sooner the problem train can be removed. I can't count the number of times I've been detraining and someone has asked me when the next train will arrive. Now logically two trains cannot occupy the same space so there is never going to be another train until the first one has moved on. And the second one will be right quick. Because it's been held at the signal behind while the problem train is sorted out. So be ready to scoot off and let the driver close up quickly and get out of there.

Finally, if you do witness an incident like an assault or vandalism then please provide your details. We absolutely understand that you're trying to get somewhere and might not have time to wait for the police to arrive but they could still do with hearing your version of events. You could pass your name and mobile number to a member of staff and ask them to give it to the police when they arrive or you could call your local station later and let them know you were a witness. They'll be able to contact whichever officers are investigating and they'll call you back to get your statement. Quite often staff are not in the place where something is happening and can't provide any good witness statements. Last night all I could do was give a time and an approximate location which is not much to go on. And I confess that there was so much going on that I forgot to ask for the details of the passengers who had been witnesses though I hope the station superviser remembered to. The really important people to a police investigation are those in the back who can see what's going on. So please let either us or the police know who you are so that incidents can be investigated. And don't be afraid to pull the alarm in an emergency.

Aug. 8th, 2011

Arrest Morrissey!

That guy clearly knows something!

I don't mean to be flippant but I really can't think of anything to say which hasn't already been covered today. Stations are being closed all over to stop gangs of kids using public transport to get anywhere. Parts of London are in flames with uncontrolled rioting. All to no purpose. This is not about Mark Duggan.

Overground London

Aug. 7th, 2011

Rude news!

BBC, stop being so fracking rude! ):(


Aug. 5th, 2011

Missing: Reward Available for Safe Return

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.

Jul. 11th, 2011

Never Buy The S*n

I've invested a lot of time and energy into this subject elsewhere so I'm not going to say anything other than to recommend that you have a listen to this.

Jun. 25th, 2011

Lit Crit

Given how indisputably awesome I am, it may be surprising for you to learn that traindrivers are generally pretty rubbish at telling stories. I know, I know, it's hard to imagine. But it's completely true. The problem lies not in the storytelling skill of the driver but in a fairly limited range of material. Just how often can a person relate that they went to work, it got dark, it got light, it got dark, it got light, it got dark again before the audience wakes up and wanders off?

All that said, we do give it our best shot. Just this morning I was standing around waiting for dawn and chatting to another driver about this and that. And he told a story. Drivers are always telling stories of one sort or another. There is an incredible store of traindriver stories within LUL which pretty much dates back to when the lines were first built. And nothing is ever written down but passed on orally from one driving generation to the next. We've been around in one form or another for nearly 150 years and must have millions of different stories circulating. All of them unique except in one respect. They pretty much end in exactly the same way.

Take this morning's story as an example. We had been talking about the wildlife to be found on the line. The story started well with an exposition on the types and number of fauna to be found on the railway which is phenomenal when you consider we work in a huge city. Today I saw a green woodpecker, rabbits, red kites, foxes, magpies, blackbirds, pigeons (but of course) and deer. And that's just the things I can remember offhand. Today's storyteller explained that the railway is not so much an urban environment but corridors of nature which intersect the city. Creatures live on the line but they also use it to travel from one place to another. And in the case of pigeons I mean that very literally with birds hopping on a train at one station and off at the next.

Framework laid, the story continued with a beautiful characterisation of some of the creatures we are lucky to observe about the place. The cheeky fox cubs who tumble down embankments, lazy rabbits dawdling along behind cable runs, darting magpies and aerobatic pigeons. We're treading into Disney territory here but it's all real life. In particular, the driver mentioned a beautiful deer he saw early one morning. A roe deer which tiptoed onto the line sometime just after dawn and stayed for a few days, gracefully wandering up and down the wild land beside the tracks.

Characterisation done, he moved on to the main part of the plot. The universal struggle of life. This deer is a little unusual for the railway as there's usually not enough land for them to roam. Mostly we get the smaller muntjac deer which charge up and down embankments and leaping over boundary fences like malevolent goats. To get a roe deer visiting is a special event and it is likely that she entered the railway to gain a little peace and quiet for her fawn. It wasn't very old but it could certainly roam up and down with her and the drivers saw them both in a variety of cute poses as trains zipped past. This story is really starting to rock and roll, isn't it?

But in every story there must be a little tragedy and this one is no different. It happened that the doe wandered with her baby up the line to a fairly steep bank and got stuck. For her own reasons she didn't want to walk back down the line and the bank was far too steep to easily climb. So she and the fawn stayed down on the railway and she ate what she could find. She kept trying to struggle up the bank but always returned to the track. I'm welling up a little just thinking about it.

But then, triumph! Every good story needs a happy victory. And the deer finally managed to scramble up to the top of the bank where she stood gazing out over the railway and the parkland beyond. In just a short time she'll be running through the trees to be reunited with her herd. This story is great!

Well it would be. If it were not for the problem that pretty much all of our stories end up the same. It was a good story until the point that we need a conclusion. Nicely paced, interesting characters, good descriptions of the locality. We just need a decent ending for once. Let's try it, shall we?

The deer looked back at the perilous climb she had just conquered, no doubt feeling a little proud of herself. As with most things, it's easy if you know how and after doing it once she could run up and down that bank all day with no problems. But that was not her intention. Now that the fawn was old enough to move greater distances there was no need to shelter on the embankment and it was time to move on. There she stood in the early morning sun, waiting for her sweet baby to follow her route up the embankment. The young fawn gazed up at his mother standing in all her glory above him. Then he got hit by a train.

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