Kids television in the 70s and 80s was a mixed bag of shows, ranging from the iconic to the utterly diabolical. It probably still is, but I haven’t been paying much attention for the last few decades. I had a few favourite shows back in my childhood. Grange Hill, the Magic Roundabout, Rent a ghost, and, of course, Paddington. Any child that doesn’t like Paddington should probably have a careful eye kept on them. They’re weird. But perhaps one show marked out my future career. Not Thomas the Tank Engine, no. Ivor the Engine was my preferred train based cartoon. I liked the soft pastel colours of the artist, the soothing Welsh tones of Jones the driver, and I was fascinated by the sound of Ivor getting up a head of steam as he trundled down the track. How would one ever transcribe that sound into written word? Peeshticoop? Whatever. That sound was, and remains, the correct sound of a train as far as I’m concerned.
The episode that you may have just watched, if you took the time to press the play button, features the bane of all railway employees. And passengers. Service disruption. Broadly speaking, disruption comes under two main categories. Planned and unplanned. The former occurs due to essential maintenance work, usually carried out at night, on weekends or during holiday periods. Diversions are put into action where possible, or bus replacement services are laid on. Unplanned disruption is another beast altogether. It comes in many forms. Most famously as the ‘wrong type’ of snow or leaves on the line. In recent weeks my line has seen disruption due to a level crossing malfunctioning, flooding, a huge fire at a yard next to the line and trees coming down on the tracks in high winds.
But the three most common causes for unplanned disruption are trespassers on the tracks, signals faults and people being hit by a train. Let’s look at that last one. It’s the most morbid, so it should be a good conservation piece. It happens several hundred times a year, often in the morning rush hour and causes no end of mayhem for train services. It takes a goodly amount of time to get the right people to the scene and have everything cleared up. By the time they’ve done their job, the trains are all in the wrong places and drivers over their hours. People still need to be transported, but you won’t be able to get any replacement buses at my end of the line first thing in the morning. They are out on school runs. Taxis will be somewhat limited too. It’s chaos and remains so for the rest of the day.
People who decide to end their lives on the tracks of a railway are not simply seeking attention. It’s no cry for help. It’s a pretty definitive decision. Still, there are some who think it throughbetter than others. The week before I joined the service, a gentleman strolled to the end of the platform at my most local station. It’s a quiet station, so no one to interfere with his plans. There’s a corner on the approach to the station, so the driver will have no time to react and stop the train. He’d even read the timetable and arrived ready for the fast non-stop train that would shoot through at full pelt. At the appropriate moment, he stepped off the end of the platform and put his neck on a rail. The end was as quick as it comes. This is in contrast to others who jump on the tracks too early, giving the drivers a chance to shed some of their speed. Or pick slow trains to jump in front of. Or mistime their jump and leap a little too late, bouncing off the train rather than splattering against it. They may meet a slower and more painful end. There are, just occasionally, survivors. Often with terrible injuries.
These days, the train companies prefer not to announce that a person has been hit by a train, but instead announce that the emergency services are attending an incident at wherever on the network it has happened. Surbiton and Wimbledon are popular locations. They are also critical arteries for the rail network into London, which are then blocked off. Passengers get frustrated pretty quickly. Some are infuriated by the inconsiderate arse that chose to ruin everyone’s day by dismembering themselves under a train. Others see the tragic side and spare a thought for the deceased person and their family. Both reactions are understandable. And both sets of personalities demand information that we often do not have to give them. It’s all just a big mess. On the trains, in the fat controllers office and in the ticket office.
There are other things that cause disruption, of course. Tonight, my train home was cancelled thanks to a gentleman falling unconscious at his seat. Next to him was a big plastic bag emblazoned with the name of one of Her Majesty’s prisons, containing his worldly possessions. He appeared to have celebrated his new found freedom a little too enthusiastically, and probably with something a life stronger than alcohol or weed. He was completely unresponsive. He was barely breathing. An ambulance arrived and the paramedics eventually took him away.
I don’t remember Driver Jones ever having to remove body parts from Ivor’s wheels or deal with just released junkies. He just had to deal with snow, trees and sleepy signallers. Life was a lot calmer and simpler at half past four of an afternoon in the 70s and 80s.