Railway Experiences and Stories


A series of stories, anecdotes, jokes, observations and serious discussions about the technicalities of the railway and the railway world in general. All these stories and comments are from my personal experiences, unless otherwise accredited. Contributions are welcome but I reserve the right to reject unsuitable material and to edit as necessary. Please e-mail your contributions to Railway Technical Web Pages


Person to Blame - London Train? - How Long is the Next Train? - Cock Up - Time Warp? - Dent - Wet Wet Wet - Angela - Abandon Hope - Who Is That Man? - Live Wire - Stop for NothingSPADs - Roach Motel - A Ditty - My Job - In Praise of Newspapers - Left Change - On Your Bike! - Blind Signs - Unusual DC Booster Control - Ver. 25 - A New York City Subway Car History - Leg Warmers - Rumours - Railroad Management Decisions - Ooo La Vache - Subway Virtuoso - Cool in Tokyo - Bird Strike - I Say - Give You a Hand? - Toilette A Grande Vitesse - Playing Trains - UK Safety Cases  - Safety Cases Costing Jobs? - TGIF  - A Choice, Public or Private Sector Management?  - Locomotive Fires - Please remove foot from mouth  - Cats - Christmas DecorationsLament - Tap Tap  - Flying Carpet Cancelled - Meggering  

PTB: Official Definition of the Person to Blame

A Railtrack definition submitted for a lexicon of railway terms referred to a PTB. It said, "The Project Manager for any project will appoint a PTB for the project, always from another organisation and preferably without their knowledge. The PTB is responsible for all failures, whereas success is the personal responsibility of the Project Manager."

London Train?

From John Haskell, 14 November 2004

I arrived at Didcot station one morning several years ago, went onto platform 4 to catch the early (approx 8am) London train, which started from Didcot. There were several of us waiting on the cold draughty platform, when the train was reversed into the platform. We went to get on the train when a message was called over the speakers "Do not board that train - it is NOT the London train". As it so obviously WAS the London train we continued to climb aboard. However the person called again "That is NOT the London train - Get OFF that train!"  Naturally we ignored him. We did not want to stand on the cold platform when there was a warmish train we could be on. Again the voice said "Get off that train - it is NOT the London train". Well, perhaps he was right, so a few started to get off, when a couple of minutes later a different voice said - "The train on Platform 4 is the 8am to London"!

"How Long is the Next Train?"

"About 350 feet."  Station attendant's response to a passenger enquiring about the late running train service at Rayleigh, Essex, UK, overheard one evening in the summer of 1975.

Cock Up

From Glen Hopkins:

The Class 150 multiple units in use by a number of different railway operators in the UK have isolating cocks for doors and suspension located under the passenger seats in the saloon. On one occasion a driver, having suffered a burst air suspension bellows, asked a lady passenger, sitting on the seat in question, to open her legs, whilst he got to his cock!

Time Warp?

From Glen Hopkins:

Many years ago, I was due on duty at Manchester Victoria at 22.00 hours. I was walking along what was then platform 11 towards the Traincrew signing on point at about 21.45, where I was stopped by an elderly and irate woman. She wanted to know why the "boat train" to Holyhead was late, and why there had not been any announcements. I informed her that the train was not due for another 25 minutes and that announcements would not be made until nearer the time. She was insistent that the train was late as she had been told that it would depart Manchester at 20 to 10 - It took me quite a while to explain to her that the railway use the 24 hour clock!

As a further pointer to passengers (sorry Customers) not being able to understand basic information, we still get a large number of them on the wrong platforms after reading the arrivals screen instead of the departure screen.


From Glen Hopkins:

A lady was travelling to Dent, a station on the famous Settle to Carlisle railway in the UK. On arrival at Dent, she alighted and seeing nothing but countryside around her asked the guard "Where is the village of Dent?" the guard replied that is about 3 miles away, down the hill. The lady then asked "wouldn't it have been better to build the station near the village?" to which the guard replied, " Yes madam, but we thought it better to build it near the railway."

Wet Wet Wet

One of the most dangerous times for a train is when braking just as a rain shower starts. The light sprinkling of water on the head of the rail mixes with the oil and grease resulting from passing trains, atmospheric pollution and flange greasing and it produces a lethal surface similar to that of an ice rink. As soon as the driver touches the brakes, the wheels lock and slide along the rails. The speedometer in the cab suddenly drops from 50 mph to 0 and you know there is nothing you can do. If you apply the emergency brake, more wheels lock further along the train and the slide just damages more wheels. If you release the brake, you won't stop where you are supposed to. If you let things stay as they are, you won't stop where you are supposed to anyway. You might just as well "drop the lot" and let the train stop where it will. At least everyone will hear all the air escaping from the brake pipe and see that at least you tried. The fact that the whole train set of wheels will have developed flats is not your concern at the moment (so sue me!).

Another bad time for sliding is early in the morning when the first train has to run through all the dew which has collected on the rail head overnight. Great care is needed to get the train from one end of the line to the other without overrunning at least one station. The same applies during the leaf fall season (as railways call autumn nowadays), when the slush of squashed leaves mixes with rain and oil to form a nice sliding mess on the rail. Of course, if there is heavy rain, the conditions are better because the water washes the rail head to some extent and reduces the risk of a slide.

Why do we get all these problems now?  We never heard of "leaves on the line" in the 1950s and 60s. The answer is progress. As modern trains have got lighter, the reduced weight has reduced the adhesion available, so a slide becomes easier. Another reason is the change from cast iron brake blocks to composition blocks. Cast iron is heavy (they used 28 pounders when I had to change them) and it produces an inflammable dust which plays havoc on electrical equipment on the train and inside signalling equipment cabinets. A third reason is the shift from tread brakes to disc brakes. Tread brakes provide a nice scrubbing action on the wheel surfaces. Disc brakes don't touch the wheel so the tread gets dirty and oily and slippery - first class slide material.

How can the problem be solved?  A good question which has not yet been answered. There have been many attempts to give slide protection by automatically (i.e. without any action by the driver) releasing the brake on any wheel which starts to slide - not much better than letting the train slide, except that it does reduce flats. However, it does nothing to help the driver approaching closed level crossing gates as one discovered one night in south west London a few years ago. He demolished a Volkswagen minibus, if I remember correctly. Fortunately, no one was killed.

Another solution is - just that, a solution - of gunge put on the rails to clean them. Sandite is a popular brand in the UK, but it requires a special train to do it and a crew to crew it and it cannot be everywhere at once. Of course it is never there when you need it - first thing on a November morning between Rickmansworth and Chalfont, for example.

One final point - how do automatically operated trains cope with bad rail conditions?  Well, most introduce a lower speed during wet or icy weather (e.g Singapore Mass Rapid Transit in a rain storm), some increase the braking distances on open sections of the line (London, Central Line) and some even turn over the driving to the drivers so that they can use their judgement to ensure that the train stops in the right places. It was the removal of such a procedure by a new manager which caused an accident a few years ago on the Washington DC metro (WMATA), in which a driver was killed.


Angela, the story from London in the 1950s goes, was a doctor's daughter. She lived at Wendover in Buckinghamshire. She used to travel to school by train to Rickmansworth each day and she went to London from time to time to see friends and to go shopping. She used to travel by the Metropolitan Line. For the sake of modesty and privacy, it was assumed, she used the "Ladies Only" compartment which was available in those days at the rear of the train next to the guard's compartment. Sometimes, if she liked the look of him and she was in the right sort of mood, she invited the guard to join her. As a result of such liaisons, she eventually gave birth to a child and had to leave school to live at home with her parents and look after her baby. After this, she still took trips on the Metropolitan regularly and enjoyed them so much that, over the years, so the story goes, she had five such children by guards on the Metropolitan Line.

"Abandon Hope All Ye That Enter Here"

Sign seen over the shunter's cabin door at Ealing Common Depot (Ealing End) in 1964 (London, UK).

Who Is That Man?

An engineer was, for a short time, engaged in train testing on the New York Subway. The tests involved equipping two cars with inter-car safety barriers and then running the train all over the system to check its performance on the tightest curves. The work was done at night when few trains were running. It was his practice to ride with the motorman (driver) to check the speed and the location of curves. He had to alert a special film crew, which were on board, to start filming the movement of the cars on curves and the engineers to watch and record the performance of the equipment. 

Late one evening, they reached the 205th Street terminus and the engineer walked through the train to change ends. A drawing table was rigged up over the tops of some seats in one of the middle cars and drawings spread spread over it so they could be accessed easily. As the engineer passed the drawing table, there was a man leaning over the drawings studying them intently and sucking a pencil. He nodded a greeting as he went by but the stranger didn't react and, as the engineer continued down the train he realised he didn't recognise him and he began to wonder who he was or what it was about him that bothered him. Being in New York City and night time, he wasn't about to ask him.

When he reached the film crew, he asked the supervisor if all his men were here. "Yes sirree, they're all here". It was the answer he expected, since he knew them all pretty well already. He asked the local engineering supervisor the same question and he got the same answer. "OK" he said, "Who is that guy?", pointing back aong the train.

"Which guy?"

"The one back there" he said. It was then he realised what had bothered him about the man. He wasn't wearing any shoes. A group went back and found him still there, still with the pencil and still without shoes. He had got on the train by squeezing in between the cars and entering via the end door while the train was waiting at the terminus. When he realised he was on the wrong train, he tried, almost successfully, to blend in. They let him off a lot further down the line than he wanted to go and told him next time to try waiting till the side doors open before trying to board a train. They never asked him what happened to his shoes.

Live Wire

Some years ago in South Africa, a driver working an electric train on a early morning trip across the open country south of Johannesburg discovered a burnt body lying across the overhead catenary. The man had been trying to cut the wires so he could steal the valuable copper cable. Of course, he had been fried by the current, which unknown to him, was switched on at 3000 volts DC.

Stop for Nothing

From a contributor: 

New York City in the early 1980s was a rich source of experiences for me. Occasionally, I did train testing at night and, on one such night in the heat of a sultry summer, I was in the cab with one of our drivers doing a test run on an elevated line in Brooklyn. We stopped behind a regular passenger train detained in a station. It was about 2 am. We waited for 15 minutes, being told by the control centre that the police had been called to sort out some trouble with the train ahead. Eventually this train moved on and we rolled into the station behind it. A policeman and a young couple were "having a conversation" on the platform as we stopped.

The driver of our train called the policeman over to ask what was going on. The policeman told us, with undisguised glee and with leering glances at the couple, that the delay was caused because they had been engaged in sexual intercourse and they had been doing it on the "el", on the track between the rails. They wouldn't stop, even when the driver of the train had stopped just behind them and blown the train horn (here much ribald comment and laughter). The driver couldn't get them to move and had to "call the gendarmes" as the policeman put it. Unfortunately, the policeman told us, they had finished before he got there.

While this story was being recounted, the couple stood behind the policeman, with the young man looking looking at the ground, foolish and embarrassed, while the girl (dark, very attractive and dressed in a revealing, skin tight outfit) smiled seductively at me and the driver without any hint of shame or modesty. 


From a contributor: 

The term SPAD has recently become well known in the UK as an acronym for Signal Passed At Danger. When I trained for my driver's job in the early 1960s, I was told, "Remember, a red signal marks the border. All the territory on this side is yours, the territory on the other side belongs to the company. They don't like illegal immigrants".

Roach Motel

From a contributor: 

This was the name by which the local lunch counter in the New York City Transit Authority's 207th Street Workshop was known in the early 1980s. It was run by a Hispanic man who was said to be an illegal alien and who, it was alleged, had no authority from the NYCTA to sell food or operate any concession on the Authority's property. The place certainly would not have qualified for any food outlet health certificate. Regardless of any of that, he made a really good egg and bacon sandwich.

A Ditty

The guard is the man
The man in the van
The van at the back of the train
The driver in front
Thinks the guard is a c***
While the guard thinks the driver's the same.

Seen written on the wall of the guard's compartment of a Southern Railway (UK) electric multiple unit train (4-SUB) at Wimbledon about 1959.

My Job

I'm not allowed to run the train
The whistle I can't blow
I'm not the one who designates
How far the train will go
I'm not allowed to blow the steam
Or even ring the bell
But let the damn thing jump the track
And see who catches hell.

In Praise of Newspapers

From a contributor: 

I am not a fan of the press. In my few dealings with them, I have usually had whatever I have said twisted into a gross distortion of the truth. There are some particularly bad newspapers in the UK. However, newspapers do have their uses on the railway and I would never be without them. 

Driving cabs are the coldest places on the railway. They are stuck at the front of the train roaring through the winter weather with nothing more than a sheet of metal or glass protecting the poor person driving the thing. Heaters are usually designed to prevent the equipment from freezing and would not meet animal protection requirements, let alone human comfort needs. However, all is not lost. The imaginative driver can improve his "office" comforts with various uses of newspapers.

Newspapers are essential for stuffing into all  the cracks, splits and openings which always appear in a cab, no matter how well designed or maintained the cab is, and most of them are not. Newspapers are also good for lining the inside of your boots - they make a very good insulator. When rolled into a ball and rubbed into the dust on the cab floor, they are useful for cleaning the oil and grease off the windows which always appears when it starts to rain. Remember, train cleaners only clean windows with an oil soaked rag. 

Newspaper is essential if you are getting under the train for any reason, like releasing stuck brakes, draining reservoirs, pulling fuses, oiling, isolating anything or tying anything down. The underneath of a train is always filthy and you don't want to get grease and dirt on your hands or gloves and then leave it all over the controls when you get back in the cab. 

Finally, newspapers make an excellent emergency toilet. Lay a few pages on the floor, sprinkle liberally with sand and you have a quick, environmentally friendly, disposable lavatory.

Left Change

From a contributor: 

Advice to young, novice booking clerk (me) by senior clerk, "If a passenger leaves his change behind, you should attract his attention by rapping smartly on the window with the office sponge".

On Your Bike!

The Class 9E electric locomotives of South Africa are 50 kV AC machines used on heavy ore haulage. The trains are so long that each locomotive was equipped with a motor cycle, carried in a case under the frame. If the driver needed to attend to a defect along the train, he jumped on his motorbike to ride to the wagon giving trouble.

Blind Signs

A feature of New York Subway cars is the provision of side signs. It was always a tradition that the name of the line and the destination was shown on the side of every car. Changing these signs had always been the task of the conductor and it was time consuming, especially on a train with 10 or 11 cars and two signs per car. Some time after the second world war, the signs were redesigned so that the process of indicating the route could be automated.

New signs, in the form of  roller blinds provided on each side of each car showed the two destinations, one for each end of the line, and the line designation of the train. For the No 6 IRT line, which runs under Lexington Avenue in Manhattan for some of its length, the signs read:


An illuminated arrow pointed towards the destination of the train so that, when it was running downtown, the arrow opposite BOWLING GREEN was lit and, going uptown, the arrow pointing towards PELHAM BAY PARK was lit. The system was designed so that the arrow changed when the driver removed his control key at one end and inserted it at the other end. 

Well, that was the plan when the trains were equipped with the system. However, the blanket adoption of the system on many lines threw up some anomalies. The most obvious was that the main IRT terminals in Manhattan both have loops, South Ferry (West Side IRT) and Bowling Green (East Side IRT). The result was that, after $ millions was spent on the new system, it did not work on either service which used these two loop terminals. Why?  Because the driver doesn't change ends at the loop end of the line but he does at the other end. This means that the automatic changeover for the illuminated signs doesn't work when the train goes round the loop because the driver doesn't remove his control key from one end and insert it at the other. In order to correct this anomaly, a manual switch was inserted into the circuit. Now, the driver has to do it himself at the loop terminal, if he remembers, and few of them do. I suppose this is a good example of the need for system engineering.

Unusual DC Booster Control

The old Southern Railway (England) DC electric locos had a clever scheme for starting. The "booster" set (a heavy motor-flywheel combination) was run up and switched to oppose the line voltage, giving a net zero volts to the traction motors (effectively like having one battery of a pair inserted backwards). To start the train, the field of the booster was reduced progressively, causing the booster output to reduce and motor voltage to rise. This was simpler than building the huge resistances and contactors that would be needed for a high h.p. DC electric loco. When line voltage was reached, the booster excitation was reversed so the booster output then added to the line voltage until the motors were running at 1500V from a 750V supply. 

When traversing 3rd rail gaps with the booster adding, the motor voltage dropped momentarily from 1500V to 750V, rather than zero, though with the booster opposing this could lead to flashovers as the wrong polarity was suddenly applied to the motors. The locos could also be run quite a distance on the booster after running it up from a shore supply, this being the standard means of getting them out of non-electrified sheds. The booster sets were recovered when the locos were scrapped and are today used by Alstom's combined test facility in Preston as load sinks for testing new traction equipment.

Supplied by Nick Cory 6 December 1999. Sources: BK Cooper, "Electric Trains in Britain" and R Ford, "Modern Railways".

Ver. 25

When testing was being carried out on the Channel Tunnel locomotives in 1993, version 25 of the control software appeared on Locomotive No. 9. And we complain about Bill Gates?

New York Subway Car History

NYC Grafitti car.jpg (95420 bytes) A complete colour history on one car. Click on this picture to see the story of the colours used on a NYC Subway car, as exposed by graffiti and the attempts to remove it in the early 1980s. Not a pretty sight.

Leg Warmers

An essential article of clothing for the locomotive driver in the winter is a black plastic bag (like the US Hefty bag). When required, place both legs inside the bag and tie loosely with string. It makes an excellent leg warmer.


"Never believe a rumour until it is officially denied."  Statement by a French official at a meeting attended with SNCF (French National Railways) in Paris in 1987.

Railroad Management Decisions

A friend of mine in the US railroad industry told me many years ago that getting anything decided was like mating elephants. It was done at a very high level, it was accompanied by a tremendous amount of noise and it took 18 months to get results.

Ooo La Vache

Eurostar drivers who operate trains between London, Paris and Brussels are trained to speak French and English so they can converse with controllers and other railway staff on both sides of the Channel Tunnel. An English driver, speeding across northern France one day, spotted a large stag wandering dangerously close to the line. Not knowing the French word for stag, he told the French control office, in his limited French, that what he had seen was "a cow with a pantograph". 

This story first appeared on the Internet and later in Modern Railways.

Subway Virtuoso

From a contributor: 

I arrived at the 57th St Subway station in New York City one evening about 10 p.m. on my way home. The platform is long and there weren't many people about. I could faintly hear the sound of a violin. As I listened, it appeared to be coming from the other end of the station and it sounded like Mendelsohn's violin concerto (without the orchestra). I wandered along the platform until I reached the source of the sounds. There was a young man playing the concerto, without music and accompaniment and playing very well too. A small crowd had gathered to listen and had become so entranced by the music that they were letting trains go without boarding them. More people gathered to listen as each train deposited a few passengers. At the end of the piece there was applause and we all left some money for him. I wanted to hear more, so I asked him to play the Bruch concerto, which he did while I let several more trains go without me on board. I eventually went home feeling all the better for the pleasure of such music.

A few weeks later, I read an article in the New York Sunday Times that a brilliant young violinist had been "discovered" playing the in Subway and there was a picture of our 57th St. violinist. He had been offered a job with the orchestra of the New York City Opera. It was good to know that the American dream was still alive and well in 1983.

Cool in Tokyo

For trainmen working on the Ginza subway line in Tokyo, a special amenity is provided at the end of the arrival platform of the terminus at Shibuya. This comprises a small refrigerator. Here the conductor will pick up a cool drink and cold towel for himself and his driver. A most welcome relief on a hot summer's day.

Bird Strike

For many years, drivers of diesel and electric trains in the UK were at risk from bird strikes when working at speeds where a bird hitting the front of the train could penetrate the windscreen of the driving cab. I once had a pigeon smash the offside window at only 40 mi/h - er, no, the pigeon didn't survive :-(  but I did :-). 

In an effort to provide a better degree of safety (and to reduce delays, of course), research was done to find a suitable toughened glass windscreen for drivers. As part of this research, advice was sought from airline suppliers, who suggested that a good test for any new glass type was to fire a chicken at high speed towards the window material. The test was duly set up and a number of dead chickens obtained. 

The test with the first chicken showed that the glass was not tough enough, even though it was of a standard used by airlines. A second test also smashed the glass. Another test smashed the third windscreen. Repeated attempts showed that no glass could stand up to the chicken being fired at it. More advice was sought from the airline people, who could not understand why the glass they offered could withstand airborne bird strikes but kept failing the railway tests. They decided to come to witness the test. 

The railway research team set up a new test and sent someone to obtain more chickens. When the chickens arrived, it was then the airline experts realised what was wrong. They told the railway research team, "You know, you do have to defrost the chickens first". 

This story has been around a long time and there are various versions but I think it's still a good one.

I Say

Well dressed English lady passenger to scruffy Cockney platform attendant, "I say my man, which train do I take to Kings Cross?"
Scruffy Cockney platform attendant, "Any train from Platform 5 lady, but bring it back when you've finished with it".

Give You a Hand?

From a contributor: 

One of my fellow British Consultants (Geoff) who worked in New York City in the early 1980s had a false arm. He had lost his own during war service as a pilot. The false one was attached to his upper arm and was equipped with a plastic hand. He used to carry a small document case in this hand by hooking it through the case handle and, except for a slight stiffness in movement, one would never notice his condition.

Riding home on the Subway one evening, he had his case resting on the floor next to his seat with his false hand still "holding" the handle. As he got up to alight from the train, his arm became detached from his shoulder and fell to the floor with a loud "clonk". The woman sitting opposite him, head the noise and looked up from her magazine, saw the arm lying on the floor and started to scream. Geoff, always the gentleman, picked up his arm and approached the lady, who screamed louder. "I'm sorry madam" he said, "I didn't mean to shock you. Please stay calm. It's OK, really."  The woman still screamed. "I say," said Geoff, "Er, look, can I give you a hand?"

Toilette A Grande Vitesse

Some years ago, an embarrassed passenger on a TGV train in France had to be helped off the train by the local "pompiers" - the fire service. The unfortunate man had dropped his wallet down the toilet and tried to retrieve it by reaching down into the bowl. Somehow, his arm got stuck and refused to budge. It was made worse by the fact that the flushing system was vacuum operated. He had to be rescued by the firemen, who cut the toilet out of the train and carried the man, still with his arm in the bowl, off to hospital to have it removed - the bowl, I mean, not his arm.

Playing Trains

From a contributor: 

A novel way of controlling a locomotive is by radio. Instead of sitting down in the cab, you stand on the ground with a little box hanging on a strap round your neck and operate the controls while the locomotive runs up and down the track, apparently on its own. The advantage of radio control is that the driver doesn't have to rely on someone else to couple and uncouple the train and operate the turnouts in the yard and he doesn't have to worry about that other person getting in the way of his train. It is a safer and more efficient way of working in a yard. It does get a bit unpleasant in the winter, though.

I first tried one of these radio controlled locomotives in a steel works in northern France. A group of us were looking at the idea for the Channel Tunnel railway yards and we had been taken to see it in action. I was invited to try it out for myself. They gave us a track near the loading bay and a locomotive with a few wagons to play with. 

The control box has two levers like those used for radio controlled model cars. One is a power lever, the other a brake lever. There is a button for the horn, a forward and reverse switch, a control key and other odds and ends and a bar (like a spacebar on a keyboard) along the edge for the "deadman" device. In a similar way to the DSD (driver's safety device) pedal in a loco cab, you have to press the bar to prevent the emergency brake applying.

Being a former driver, I had a pretty good idea of how to control the train but I was totally unprepared for the lack of "feel" as the it moved. I could hear the diesel engine "rev up" and I could see the train move but I couldn't feel the power under my feet. Very strange this, since I was used to "flying by the seat of my pants" and knowing what my train was doing by sensing the movement and the response to the controls.

Another visitor in our party, a senior railway executive but with no practical driving experience, decided he wanted to have a go next. I passed the control box over to him and showed him which levers did what. He chugged the train slowly along in one direction and then chugged it back in the opposite direction but a bit faster. At this point, I moved closer to him in case he decided to see if there was enough energy in the train to demolish the loading bay. He did - almost!  It soon became obvious to me (and one of our host party) that he wasn't going to be able to stop in time. Just as the host engineer turned white-faced to towards us, I quickly knocked the visitors arm off the "deadman" bar and the train screeched to a halt a few yards short of the wall of the building. Face was saved all round but, so much for playing trains!

UK Safety Cases

In the UK, there was a procedure which every new train supplier had to go through called a "Safety Case". He had to prove that his new design was safe to operate over the lines where it will be used before his customer can use the train in revenue service. It was a long and mind-bendingly and oppressively bureaucratic process which could take 18 months to complete, if all went well. This meant that, if a supplier completed the first unit of a new train in January 2000, it will be June 2001 before the punters get to ride on it. Some suppliers got it done more quickly but not many. The whole process would do credit to Indian Government bureaucracy.

One way of reducing the time spent on Safety Cases was to offer designs which were already in service. This means that most of the issues have already been signed off by the committees involved in approving safety so the design doesn't have to jump through the hoops again. This would also please the suppliers, who can offer a design more cheaply since they don't have to tool up again and they don't have to load the price to compensate for the time they are forced to spend sweet-talking the safety police. Of course, it would bring us back to the BR Mark 1 coach syndrome, where a design produced in the early 1930s was still in production 30 years later because "it worked" but there was very little innovation or improvement technically or in the passenger's environment.

The safety industry in Britain has developed into a multi-million pound business which is pushing up the cost of trains (and therefore eventually rail travel) every month. It has developed as a result of a "no blame" culture, now common in society in general, where responsibility is carefully managed in multiple levels of bureaucracy and diverse corporate entities so that no-one can be clearly held responsible for anything because there are so many parties involved.

Two things need to happen. One is that personal responsibility needs to be restored at all levels. Nowhere is this more clear than for a train driver who passes a stop signal at danger. He is responsible for the control of his train. He has signed that he is happy with his training over the route he covers, so he will know where the bad sightings are, where the bad rail conditions usually appear, where the fast stretches of line are, where the stations are etc. He knows how to control his train. What excuse could he have for passing a signal at danger?  If a car driver runs a red light, is he sent to a psychiatrist and hosed down with love?. No. He is sent to court and punished. Why should a train driver be treated any differently?  He should be disciplined by his employer. Employers should act properly to ensure discipline is applied to their staff and that a culture of personal responsibility is enforced.

The other thing which needs to happen is that the railway safety approval process needs to be enshrined in a simple law with one body appointed to administer it and to take responsibility for it. No more obfuscation should be allowed.

Safety Cases Costing Jobs?

Two sentences buried in an article in the April 2000 issue of the UK railway industry magazine "Modern Railways" point to an undesirable trend which is likely to gather pace. The sentences, in an article about the Virgin Voyager rolling stock being built by Bombardier (page 40), read, "Initial testing will be around Brugge, then high speed testing will take place over the summer between Gent [sic] and Brussels. As much as possible of the type testing will take place in Belgium, allowing testing to take place without waiting for a 'T' certificate from Railtrack........"  So, Britain's safety case culture is driving train testing overseas. One has to ask, if the costs of waiting for the UK safety case procedure and the risks of not being able to get it right initially increase the price of rolling stock built in Britain, will the only place TOCs will go for new trains at an affordable price be overseas? 

Thank God It's Friday

TGIF.jpg (45003 bytes)This picture says it all. It was found in a collection of postcards years ago and recently turned it up again. The card says nothing but the following paragraphs were supplied by Nick Smith in response to an appeal for information.


Brake failure - Overrunning of end of track in station - Locomotive falls out of the station

 On 23 October 1895, at 16:00, the Granville-Paris local passenger train No 56 of the then French Western Railway, consisting of the locomotive, two luggage vans, a postal van, two first-class, four second-class, and five third-class coaches, that is fourteen vehicles in all, met with a curious accident in consequence of failure of the Westinghouse brake.

Since, in spite of all the exertions of the locomotive crew, who were considered to be very reliable, the speed of the train, which was about 45 km/h (28 mph), could not be reduced, the buffer stops at the end of the track were overrun, and the end wall of the terminus, over a metre thick, was broken through.

The locomotive, which in spite of the force of the impact did not break away either from the train or the tender, fell through the resulting opening on to the pavement, ten metres below, and there wrecked a newspaper shop, the proprietress of which was killed. Driver and fireman saved themselves in time by jumping out before the fall.

The train then came to an instantaneous halt, and only trifling injuries to its passengers were to be recorded.

The damage to rolling stock was insignificant.

As a railway accident, it ranks as a classic. I wonder what the driver said afterwards?  "Oh, Merde" or the French equivalent of "Sorry Boss, the brakes failed"?  In almost every similar railway accident I have been involved with or heard about, the driver will always say "the brakes failed". It's the first reaction one gets if a driver overruns anything and especially if it results in an expensive mess like this one. It is almost always an error of judgement. In this case however, it is believed to have been an iced up brake pipe.

There were similar incidents in the UK in the last 40 years including one at Hammersmith (Metropolitan Line, London) when a driver overran the stops. He made a considerable amount of noise in the process, so much so that the booking office clerk opened the door to see what was going on and was amazed to see a train parked outside. He was actually very lucky the train didn't go far enough to actually demolish the booking office.

In another incident at the old Hounslow West terminus of the Piccadilly Line, the driver hit the stops and collided with the wall beyond, which happened to be part of the staff toilet. An occupant who was in it at the time was not terribly amused but, so the story goes, it cured his constipation.

A Choice - Public or Private Sector Management?

In London, two new railway extensions were opened on 20th November 1999. One was the much publicised Jubilee Line extension of London Underground and the other was the Lewisham extension of the Docklands Light Railway. The Jubilee Line was opened throughout just over two years late, the original target date being September 1997. Instead of the planned 36 trains per peak hour, it will only get 24 per hour. It was managed by a state run organisation, London Underground Ltd. On the other hand, the Lewisham extension opened two months early and was financed through a public-private partnership. The DLR is operated and maintained by a private company. No contest?

Locomotive Fires

A simple message about the things which fire-fighters have to be careful of when fighting a fire on a locomotive was posted in a newsgroup some years ago. It is worth repeating (slightly edited) here.

"You are absolutely correct in your concern for electricity versus water at fire scenes. An uphill educational need for fire-fighter training exists. We fire-fighters love to apply the wet stuff to the red stuff at every skirmish with the Red Devil. Most of us do not see trains as huge electrical generating platforms, we see them as the next larger item to our more familiar truck and car fires. We would generally use water-based foam on vehicle fires as we would suspect gasoline or diesel as being the major source of fuel. Several R.R. List members researched this issue of loco fires last year and we came up with: 

  • Activate the fuel shut-off RED button on the offending unit (with R.R. concurrence when possible)
  • Dump (open) the knife switch on the 72V batteries.
  • Fight fires with ABC powder extinguishers.
  • Consider letting fuel/oil fires involving the sumps (under the prime mover) burn out.
  • Do not apply water to dynamic grid or turbo fires (electrical danger AND exploding cherry red metal)
  • Treat fuel fires on the ground like any other fuel fire, using foam,

"Remembering that if AC Locomotives are involved there may be high voltage capacitance for as long as 40 minutes following engine shut-down on some EMD's. These "cans" are located on the locomotive within the rear cab and far end of the long hood. While manufacturing reps from EMD did not answer posts, the GE folks and most loco mechanics I've spoken to would prefer that fire-fighters use ABC extinguishers on locos to prevent the additional damage that would result with water.

"From my own point of view, 3000 volts and water are a combination I would choose to avoid. Best case is that I would be called "Sparky" the rest of my career. Worse, would be that generations of fire-fighters would remember "The Lump" (of coal) as their memory jogger for why not to apply water on locomotive fires. As for cutting tools, most of what we have (including Jaws) are too light duty for the mongo metal found in both locomotives and passenger train cars. Fire-fighters must think of heavy structural collapse tools (demo saws, torches, etc) and contractor assistance for a wrecked loco or train car. Using available exits, transferring people to other cars, removing rail crew through the loco side slider windows, etc are the preferred methods. Check for crew members in the bathroom located in the nose. This is a confined space rescue requiring LSP halfback or KED device for extrication."  Originally from Eric Sondeen.

Please remove foot from mouth

There is a US railroad story in which it was said that a certain engineer used a heavy wrench to hold down the deadman's pedal of his locomotive. Apparently, on one occasion, the wrench fell off the pedal and the train came to a stop. When asked by an officer why the train stopped, the engineer replied, "The wrench fell off the deadman's pedal."   The officer then asked him again, hoping the engineer would realise what he had said and that he would make up another reason. Any good engineer can do this in an instant. Unfortunately the engineer still insisted that it was because of the wrench, so the officer had no choice but to discipline him. Co-workers have since nick-named him "The Wrench". First posted by Joel G. Kirchner.


It used to be the practice at many UK railway stations to keep a cat. Its prime purpose was to reduce the local rodent population to a manageable level. A small amount of money was allowed to be spent on cat food and milk (3 shillings and 4 pence or 17p, where I used to work), although the staff often used to feed it titbits. At Uxbridge station in the early 1960s, there was a very large station cat which was probably the most idle cat in the country. It was often fed by the train crews who spent the night there between bringing in the last train in the evening (01:12) and the first in the morning (04:15).

Other observed railway cats (reported by Peter Whatley on uk.railways) were at Barbican in London which had two, often seen sitting on the barrier line during the peaks. Altrincham station (near Manchester) had a famed three-legged cat. It tried to trip up a Class 304 EMU one evening and came off worst. At Kilmarnock (in Scotland) they had a station kitten which had a nasty habit of shredding timetables and trying to shred passengers hands as they reached for tickets. It was given a free transfer to the Civil Engineers who probably ate it. As an aside, Peter told how he once had to evict a Scottish wildcat from a Glasgow - Carlisle train. Who knows how it got into a nice warm Mk2 but it didn't seem too pleased at being sent to England. All teeth and bristling fur. Very nasty.

Christmas Decorations

From a contributor: 

It used to be the custom to have a Circle Line train of the London Underground decorated at Christmas time by the students of one of the London colleges. The chosen train sometimes ran like this for several days. We crews always enjoyed the attention it brought. A lady who had ridden on the train once offered me a Christmas tip. I was so amazed I forgot to wish her a Happy Christmas. The idea of decorations fell into disrepute in the early 1980s with a more fire-aware approach being imposed. When the decorations appeared, the train was taken out of service to be sanitised.


"We are the willing, led by the unknowing to do the impossible for the ungrateful."  Quote from the Channel Tunnel project team in 1991. Courtesy Michael Watkins.

Tap Tap

A Yoker (Scotland) driver, in a mischievous mood one day, stood waiting for his train at Grascadden Station carrying a white stick and wearing dark glasses. When the unit came in, he tap-tapped his way up the set, rattling his stick against the platform and the sides of the coaches, relieved the driver, stepped into the cab and drove away. Several letters were apparently received in local papers about ScotRail employing blind drivers and the safety of same. Needless to say, the driver got into serious bother for this stunt. Posted by "Jack" aka 55009 (Monster Power!!!) in 1998.

Flying Carpet Cancelled

On day while working a train into a station, I saw two East Indian gentlemen on the platform with an large floor rug stretched out between them. They were beating the rug with a wooden stick. When I'd stopped in the station, I asked them, "What's the matter fellas, won't it start?" Contribution sent in by Steve Tammy, January 2001.

Border Regulations

A spoof  by Dr Andre Zeug, Head of Business Development and Central Marketing at DB Cargo and published in the German publication "Deutscher Verkehrszeitung"  last year, suggested what would happen if the freight lorries and coaches driving across Europe were subjected to the same idiotic regulations as the railways still impose at the borders.

" A truck that comes from the Ruhr industrial centre and heads for Milan arrives at the German-Austrian border and must prove that it has a brake system approved for use in Austria. As well as that, it needs a different coupling. The driver must also be changed, after all, the German driver doesn't know the Austrian highway rules too well. A few other special bits and pieces are needed on the truck for passing through Austria. In a nutshell;  you need the full equipment of an Austrian truck in addition to that of a German one. Next, the new driver arrives at the Italian border and learns, si, si,  - everything has to be different. That means a third brake system is needed, the blinkers have to be swapped to green and on top there has to be a fume extractor because that's all differently regulated in Italy to keep the Adtriatic free of pollution. And of course, it's understood that an Italian Union brother must come on board, so the Austrian has to get out before the truck can continue into Italy..."

Dr Zeug might have added: Why was the truck making the detour through Austria in the first place?  Because trucks in Switzerland have to be narrower. But he makes his point. In fact, Swiss railways are probably more liberal with their technical standards than any of the "big three" that surround them. On a recent visit to the Knorr Bremse plant in Munich, large brake panels were being assembled for Alstom locos for SNCF and Adtranz locos for DB and FS. All UIC brake systems but all panels completely different. The SNCF panel was populated with valves of 1950s SNCF-approved designs, made in a Knorr factory in France. The German panel... the Italian panel... yeah, you got the picture. Enough to make you frein-tic ?  Sent in by Nick Cory, 13 March 2001.

Signalmen with Brains!

"Electric interlockings demand no significant manual work from the signalman. The selection of these employees can therefore be undertaken with greater concentration on the intellectual than the physical capabilities". (Siemens & Halske, "Electric Interlockings for Points and Signals" 1908). Translated from the German by Nick Cory, 13 March 2001.

"Meggering" cables - by "Tester"

Here is some good old-fashioned technical advice which should be read by every electrical engineer and technician.

I have my old ex-BR hand-winding "Megger" (that is what it is called) that I still use around the house; it's still in calibration, which is more than can be said for my North Eastern Region AVO. Modern Meggers are battery powered. The continuity test (belling) is used only to prove that a core is continuous from start to finish. Remember, it doesn't prove that the core is properly insulated from the adjacent ones. Testing a multicore cable proceeds as follows:

Step 0. Ensure all cores of the cable are disconnected at both ends from all loads and supplies. Cores should remain terminated (Disconnection links open: these should always be provided - if the designers are to remain your friends.) If dis links are not provided you can only test by de-terminating cores, but this to some extent devalues the test, which is to prove the installation error-free and ready for commissioning. This step ensures that we are only testing the cable and not the rest of the world - it also stops us from damaging anaything with the high voltage Megger output. Step 1. Core continuity test: Don't just "bell" or "buzz" the cable; use the Megger to take a resistance reading of every core and check that all cores are within spec for the length of cable / size of core involved. This will save problems during commissioning. Merely using an AVO or a bell to check continuity can give a false sense of security. A high res core can often be a jointing error. Be particularly alert for crossed cores that have accurred during termination or jointing as they can really spoil your day during commissioning. Station an assistant at the other end of the cable with a test lead and a radio or cellphone. Designate core 1 as your "common" and connect one pole of the Megger to it on resistance scale; your mate connects one end of the test lead to it. Connect the other pole to core two, three etc in turn while your assistant does the same and take a resistance reading for every core. On finishing do a final check using core 2 and the last core, to be sure that core 1 isn't high-res. If any combination of cores gives a reading significantly different from the rest, investigate!

There's no point "Meggering" the cable until you know that all the cores go right to the other end, which is why the continuity test comes first. Step 2. Core-to-earth insulation test: Use wire to loop all cores together at one end of the cable**. Connect one pole of the Megger to this loop and the other to an earth terminal. Test using the appropriate voltage rating - 500V for signalling multicores and 1000V for power cables. A pass  - typically 10 MOhm, less in damp weather - proves that there is no earth fault. Especially on signalling circuits that use "double cut" circuitry and a floating supply (i.e. a supply where neither the + or - are earthed), it is essential for safety to prove that there is no earthy core. If the cable is metal sheathed, the sheath should be included in the test by ensuring it is also connected to the earth terminal. Why loop all terminals together? Because it's quicker than doing them individually, without devaluing the test. If the test reveals a "low" core, then you have to disconnect the loop from one core at a time and repeat the test until you found which core was pulling it down.** Note: bare tinned wire is handy when you're dealing with the old 2BA type terminal posts, as you can rapidly zigzag it up the row of terminals and take a couple of turns round the last one to hold it tight; then unzip it again afterwards. While running the test, make sure you keep body parts away from the bare wire! When using modern Wago or Weidmuller terminals, it is worth making up a  loop of insulated stranded wire with 48 crimped terminal pins on it that you can repeatedly insert into the terminals. Designers should always select terminals with a disconnect link and a test connection, otherwise you're forced to disturb permanent wiring which is highly undesirable. Terminals with a 2mm test point are ideal. Step 3. Core-to-core insulation test: For each core in turn, disconnect one core from your loop, leaving all others on the loop. In this way, Megger between the disconnected core and all the others. This test will reveal any shorts between cores. This test is done on cable before they leave the factory and it should be done again after installation and before any jointing work. But cables can get damaged during "pulling in", which is why it is essential to test after the cable has been jointed and terminated. Step 4. Don't miss out any cables: everything should be given a continuity and Megger test, even single core track circuit tails. For these tests, loop two tails together with a test lead. Battery clips make excellent test clips for this kind of heavy work. At a block joint, check all four tails and do a "cross test" to make sure each tail goes to the correct rail; otherwise you'll spend double the time allowance setting up the track circuits. It is always worth doing thorough installation checks; in this author's experience it is failure to complete all "sins" prior to a commissioning that is the main cause of possessions overrun. If any continuity or earth fault problems were detected, run the whole test again after they have been corrected. You'll be glad you did. For power cables, the loop resistance should be checked and the potential short circuit current compared with the design rating of the protecting fuses: fuses changed if necessary. This is to prevent a short circuit at the far end of the cable from being undetected by the fuses - if the cable resistance is high enough, its resistance will limit the current to less than the fuse rating, so the cable will become a long electric fire and feed the fault for a long time. Long cables need more sophisticated forms of protection, such as di/dt (rate of current rise) relays. NB (1) - The above should be in your testing handbook.
NB (2) - Without liability!

Courtesy, Nick Cory, 28 May 2001.