Thank God it's Friday

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
MONDAY: My Personal Track Safety (PTS) course starts today at the Waterloo South Side training centre. It's interesting to compare the teaching methods on the railways with those in the real world.

Class sizes are much smaller for a start. I am one of six, and the others are all young men in their early twenties who have decided to move up from General Railway Person (GRP) and need to be trained to walk about safely on the track. I notice that I am relatively short of tattoos. There are many Three Lettered Abbreviations (TLAs) in use on the railway.

Part of the training features the stringent Drugs and Drink policy explained in a video by Michael Buerk. It really is very strict with an allowed alcohol limit less than half that for motorists and a complete ban on Night Nurse which is listed among several more interesting highs.

TUESDAY: Day two of the PTS is postponed so that I can attend a derailment inquiry. As part of my secondment I am to look at the problem of SPD (Signals Passed at Danger), and it is suspected that the driver of the train went through a red light and tried to reverse back across points before anyone noticed. Sadly the train came off the track, but thankfully without injury.

The inquiry is very fair and very thorough, with every opportunity being presented to the driver to justify his actions. He tries to blame the brakes, but the black box recorder in the train does not support him and it becomes clear that he did indeed go through a red light. His ASLEF representative (wow! five letters!) moves into damage limitation mode.

Lunch is not taken during the inquiry. We have a PNB (Personal Needs Break) instead. This is because flexible rostering makes lunchtime a meaningless concept.

WEDNESDAY: Out and about today with two drivers having their six-monthly appraisal sessions. This consists of an equipment check, a few questions about health and safety, some instruction (Michael Buerk again), and a train driving session. We go to Hayes and back, and I get to ride in the cab. It's the biggest train set in the world! What was that about the difference between men and boys?

As we go, they explain the mysteries of leaves on the line. During leaf-fall the wheels mash up the leaves and this deposits a very slippery residue on the track. There is no cheap way to deal with this; there is something expensive which is sprayed on the track at the worst places. Even so, the drivers have to adjust their technique to allow for reduced braking.

Starting a train doesn't seem too difficult, it's stopping it that takes real skill.

THURSDAY: The timetabling of the railway is interesting. The passenger timetable is only the tip of the iceberg. There are equally complex timetables for drivers, trainmen (they used to be called guards), and the individual bits of the trains.

All of these timetables are known as diagrams, to distinguish them from the timetable. The diagrams are translated into individuals' rosters, so that each driver knows where he should be and when.

I spend a bewildering day with a diagrammer and a roster clerk who patiently take me through the process. It's an eye-opener to anyone who has timetabled a large comprehensive school, as I have.

FRIDAY: Back to my Waterloo for the remainder of the PTS course. I go through the rules of the railway, or at least the tiny proportion devoted to being on or near the line, and then don my HVV (High Visibility Vest) for some practical work.

We go to Clapham Junction, the busiest junction in Britain, and wander about looking at points, signals and other vital bits and pieces.

The trains whizzing past and the high voltage conductor rail work their magic on my imagination so that the excursion has the desired effect. I have the fear of God put into me.

Back in the safety of the training centre, I am on more familiar ground. The multiple guess test and oral examination are more my cup of tea.

Phil Bloomfield is head of Fitzharry's School, Abingdon, Oxfordshire and is currently on a one-year secondment to British Rail South Eastern

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