I think it is fair to say that I really enjoy my job. I enjoy working with the public, even when it can be hard to explain some things to them. I also enjoy working with transport providers – no matter the mode – bus, taxi, train or even air or boat, I find it invaluable that we can call on their experience and opinion. I have to say, although there are some dark days, most of them are pretty decent. On this basis, today was legen – wait for it…
dary. Legendary. Flipping amazing. And here is why.
One of our colleague providers is the rail company Greater Anglia. I’ve worked with them and their predecessor for some considerable time – Sheila has been mentioned before in fact, as I will again now. (Link back: This post.) I know that when they received the new class 379 trains as I photographed in the previous post they also got a brand new sparkly simulator to train drivers on. But I haven’t ever seen the simulator… until today. Sheila invited me along to the Greater Anglia Academy to see the other side of what Greater Anglia do – the rigorous assessment drivers go through in order to remain on the rails, moving us from A to B.
We arrived at the Academy and the first thing to note – its not like school. The lead manager came over and introduced him self, as did the manager who would be assessing me for the day. This isn’t just general politeness, as Bruce explained – we’re talking about a livelihood here, they focus on the driver being relaxed and not feeling pressured. Train driving is not just a job but a career and the driver must remain fully competent in his role. 30 years ago, drivers were given some training and when passing out as a fully qualified driver, they were given their keys and not seen again by their assessors unless they did something wrong. Now, when a driver is passed, they are reviewed every year, including a short exam and a simulated scenario or two – not a run of the mill trip but with some issues.
The exam covers rules and regulations – for example where you can or cannot walk on the railway, things you should do or not do or signs you might see. I was half expecting a pop quiz but I gave this a go. One thing to note – there is no pass or fail. If they have concerns then they deal with each driver individually. My score though was not as great as I would have liked to do but considering I had no revision – 30% correct. D’oh. But then I was also taken through the things I had got wrong and Bruce explained why they follow the regulations and what purpose they had. Safe working distance from Overhead Electrical Lines? 2.75 metres. And that bit of land to the side of the train track on the left between a field and the track? It’s known as the CESS or “Formally the 10 foot”.
I was introduced to the Simulator too starting with a class 379, the train class I got up close and personal with about a year and a bit ago. Fun fact – it takes about 6 or 7 high end computers to power the simulator. The layout is much akin to the actual train – its a mock up cab. Every button and dial is replicated, the touchscreen is a touchscreen; the CCTV for DDO is faithfully replicated; even the lights and wiper switches function. Oh, and the seat moves!
The controller in the office – Bruce in this case – can change everything from the time of day, the weather, the windscreen conditions (dirt or a crack), the adhesion and even obstacles on the line. The train functions are very realistic – AWS to cancel when approaching caution aspects or danger aspects and TPWS if I don’t cancel the alert. A DRA button to set and reset at red aspects. Dials telling me brake cylinder pressure. And all I had to do was sit in the seat, keep my foot down (unless it bleeps when I have to lift up and push back down again). Sound easy still?
Sheila was stood with me and observing as I took my “train” through changes in the speed limit, encountering emergency speed restrictions, snow, rail, fog and a cow on the line. In driving a train for an hour and 10 minutes, I had experienced the worst a driver could expect to encounter from the environment. I was surprised to hear Bruce then tell me I’d actually done ok for a first timer, which was testament to Bruce’s short but very informative tutorial. However, my head hurt – it had taken such a lot to concentrate to where to stop, what speed limits to adhere to and when to sound my horn. I’d only been doing it an hour – imagine a two hour run from London to Norwich!
During a short break and a chat about how I found it, Bruce explained the other aspect about the assessment – pastoral care. Driving in shifts is demanding work and drivers have to plan their life accordingly. This means going to bed at the right times and alcohol intake limitations before their shift.
I was also shown the wall of SPAD fame – Signals Passed At Danger – which helps drivers understand the lessons to be learnt, and the latest initiative to help drivers who rotate patterns – DISH: Do I Stop Here? Its clear that the Academy is there to help their drivers be the best by learning from every opportunity – as someone else pointed out, messing up in the simulator, you can have another go. You don’t get that chance in the real thing.
Before I left, I was given one last run on the class 315 simulator. I could hear another assessment going on in the background too, as I was shown a completely different cab and way to drive. The difference between old and new is astounding – seating position, controls – even the way that you key in. I found this harder, because the core difference is a separate brake to accelerator, compared to a single controller on a 379. I know I went over the speed limit a few times by a little but I could feel my concentration begin to waver. How the metro drivers do it day in day out I do not know.
I left the Greater Anglia Academy with a renewed respect for train drivers everywhere. I thoroughly enjoyed myself but learnt a lot – not just about driving trains but the investment that goes into each driver. I was awestruck at how the drivers are put into the deep end of a scenario, not to try and get some to “fail” but to help them to identify where they can focus on. Above all, the experience was very useful, informative being an understatement. I hope I can translate some of their skill set in to other areas I work now.
A big thank you to Sheila for inviting me along today – I won’t shut up about this for a while…