Sunday, 13 January 2013

Spring 2013

Most young lads when I was young wanted to be an engine driver or a signalman on the railway. Many took up train spotting so they could get nearer to their passion. Train spotting wasn’t really an interest for me but how the railway operated was.
I was lucky when my step-father wasn’t around as my mother used to allow me to go up to our local park in Brownhills. I was a bit of a naughty one though as I used to linger on Brownhills Bridge and watch the freight trains go by the signal box.

The line of course was the South Staffs Line that ran from Lichfield City to Walsall via Brownhills. I then continued to Holland Park but the swings and roundabouts didn’t really interest me. One day I was bored and didn’t want to go home until due time so bypassed the park and decided to wander down the path alongside the railway line. I found an opening in the railings and went through it. Now I knew even then it’s dangerous to venture onto the railway track so I sat on top of the bank in line of site of the Signal towards Newtown Bridge where Anglesey sidings were and just listening and watched. 

I started doing this frequently when allowed and realised that some trains went up at specific times and the same train came back a little later in a different formation. I think this was the very start of my interest in railway operations and specifically getting to know the routes including junctions and their names.

In the 1970’s I even sent off an application to be a station Announcer at Wolverhampton Station based in the power signal box their so I could be part of it. Unfortunately to my disappointment I had to be 18 to be considered and I was only 17. Instead I got a job working in an unemployment office which was supposed to be temporary for six months. In fact I did the job in various roles including supplying ministerial briefing information for almost 22 years. My interest in operations continues to this day and although not always travelling make use of the information available to help others if I can.

If a train is delayed passengers assume rightly or wrongly it’s the cause of the train operating company (TOC) they are travelling with. It is a fair assumption as unlike in the 1960’s it was all British Rail now its individual TOCs who run trains but Network Rail are responsible for the railway infrastructure which includes all that goes to allow the trains to run on the tracks. Anything that affects the infrastructure can result in delays for any TOC that is using that particular line. Most of our West Midlands lines are heavily used so as soon as there is an incident trains can be stacked up one signal behind the other. Trespass and signal issues are just two of such incidents which can cause untold delays for all concerned.

When there are incidents the various TOCs and Network Rail liaise with each other using established working practices and pre-determined guidelines to get things sorted as quickly as humanly possible. Invariably trains and crew are displaced which means services that are formed after by delayed trains could well be delayed themselves. There are times built into the timetables to allow for temporary speed restrictions and junction cross-over points known as recovery and path-ing time. I know this as I used to collect, when they were available in paper form, old Railway Working Timetables which showed these times built into the public timetable. Hence sometimes you may arrive at your destination station before the time shown in your passenger timetable.

When there are incidents leading to delays, a train may be stopped short of its booked destination or runs fast missing out stations on route so that it can catch up time and be as close to time as possible for its next scheduled journey. This is done not for the convenience of the train company concerned but to limit the amount of passenger inconvenience on later journeys. If this wasn’t done it is possible that train crews may be out of their working time under Health and Safety regulations or not available to take their next booked train out resulting in a possible cancellation.
It’s not only passenger trains that suffer by delay but also freight trains that are an integral part of Great Britain’s railway and these trains cannot just park up at a station or stop short if they are delayed. All this means that Network Rail and the TOCs have to work very closely together to resolve issues and make decisions often at very short notice which we as the general public might not fully appreciate or understand locally but are essential in the wider picture.
And one final thought in the whole scheme of things in life is a five or ten minute delay arriving at a station important to us as passengers? It certainly is for Network Rail and the TOC’s and that’s why they strive to do all they can to ensure the train you are expecting to board or alight from is where it should be at the time it should be. Incidents do happen and cause delays but they don’t deliberately set-out to do this.

These views expressed here are my own as I see things and not those of the South Staffs Rail Group, Network Rail or any Train Operating Company. The images used are for illustrative purposes only and may be subject to copyright restrictions.

Dave Cresswell  January 2013

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