In the first of a new series of features, Rail Express editor Mark Simmons sits down with Southern driver Andy Johnson to discover first-hand what it is like operating modern DC multiple units.
RAIL EXPRESS (RE): You started your career on the railways (on an industrial student placement as a steward with InterCity Onboard Services in BR days). What drew you back, and why, as a driver for Southern?
ANDY JOHNSON (AJ): After doing different things in the travel and hospitality industry, I originally applied when I saw an ad for a driver with South West Trains while I was living in Portsmouth, but I chickened out as I had quite a good job in sales. It’s one of those things I regretted ever since, but I went on to become airline cabin crew, which I did for around 10 years. And then one day I thought: I’m going to do something about addressing that regret. By then I’d moved to Brighton and went onto the Southern website and was pleased to find an ad for train drivers based at Brighton. However… the applications closed the very next day. So I hastily cancelled plans with friends and managed to get my application in just before the deadline.
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RE: How long did the process take for you?
AJ: It was actually quite lengthy – about eight months before I was sat in GoAhead House on my first day.
RE: And did you know much about what it would actually involve?
AJ: I’d done a fair bit of research online. There are quite a few good websites that cover the standard recruitment process TOCs use for a train driver. The process for me started with an assessment day and after that I was pleased to be invited to the interview phases. When I went for my second interview at Brighton, I was shown into the quiet room at the depot to wait for the two managers who were going to interview me. And was amazed to find – completely by chance – a former colleague at the first airline I worked for who was now a train driver based there, so I was able to spend 15 minutes having a power conversation about pros and cons. It was great because it really put any nerves I had to one side. That interview went very well and stood me in good stead for the third interview, a multi-modal one which covered various scenarios.
RE: So once you cleared all the initial hurdles and had a clear medical you were ready to start the formal training programme. How did that go?
AJ: It was a 12-month programme that Southern put me through. The first six months of that were classroom-based at the driver training school at Selhurst depot. I was training with a great team of guys and we’re on a group chat now and still chat most days. Classroom training was broken down into six modules and at the end of each one you were assessed before you could move on. And at the end of the six months we had a full-day exam of everything we’d gone through, including the Rule Book, which we’re expected to know inside out.
RE: Was it strange going back to the classroom?
AJ: When I was cabin crew I’d worked for four airlines, and for each one I did some kind of entrance training, so I was used to going back into a training environment and it wasn’t such a shock for me. The trainers that we had were fantastic; they were well-established on the railway and what they needed to pass on to us was well-delivered.
RE: You’ve been passed out as a driver for nearly five years now. What classes are you currently signed for?
AJ: Most of my work is on Class 377s, but I’m also signed for Class 313s. The latter aren’t electronic in any form, so things either work or they don’t, which means they can have temperamental moments. But then so can the 377s, as they’re all electronic and sometimes you need to coax the computer back into life to get the train to work.
RE: Quite different from the slam-door stock that previously worked the lines?
AJ: Yes, I was quite familiar with that from when I lived in Portsmouth. But I never drove them myself, so I can’t necessarily relate to the stories from drivers who did. From a passenger’s point of view I really liked them: they had big, comfy seats and windows you could properly open. On the other hand there was no air-conditioning, no proper ventilation apart from opening the window, no wi-fi, no passenger information. But they were characterful and had their own beauty in a weird way.
RE: So where are you mainly driving at the moment?
AJ: My routes go to Littlehampton and Bognor in the west, Seaford and Hastings in the east and up the main line to London Victoria and points in between. My next routes, probably in a couple of months, will be across to Portsmouth Harbour and up through the Arun Valley to Horsham and Crawley.
RE: And do you have such a thing as a typical day?
AJ: The earliest we start, as I did today, is 03.40 and our latest finish is 02.00. We do a week of earlies and a week of lates, with switchover on a Sunday. Driving in takes me about 20 minutes and the first thing to do is book on – which is to confirm that I’m fit for duty and have all the equipment needed to do the driving role.
I’ll then be issued with my schedule card which tells me what services I’ll be working and the stopping patterns of those trains. I’ll check the late notice case for things like temporary speed restrictions and my pigeon hole in case there’s any paperwork that needs signing off. We’re given 13 minutes between booking on and taking out a first passenger working, but as I’m someone who likes to be organised I very rarely book on at the last minute. If my first job is to take a train out of Lovers Walk depot, I’m given 25 minutes walking time to get there from the booking-on point. And if my first job is as a passenger to another destination, I have 11 minutes.
When I’ve boarded I like to check in with the other member of the train crew (conductor for 313s or on-board supervisor on 377s), although some services on the Brighton main line are driver only operated. At Southern we still do quite a bit of splitting/attaching and those will be highlighted on my schedule card.
RE: How long before you get your first break?
AJ: It really depends, but most breaks are scheduled at a reasonable time. One of the important things for me is trying to be healthy as driving is a sedentary role. So I try to eat reasonably healthily and have food that’s appropriate for the time of day. The longest shift that we have is 9.5 hours, but can be just six hours.
RE: As well as healthy eating, you are personally involved with mental health work; how did that come about?
AJ: I was looking for something to do in addition to my driving, when the role of health and well-being champion came up and I was successful after I went for it. So I now work with three other drivers based at Brighton, led by a competency manager, and the idea is to promote healthier lifestyles and better well-being in the workplace.
One of the things that was obvious to me is that we have a huge issue with mental health. Unfortunately, the railway has always been a place people will turn to if they’re intent on ending their own life. That is hugely sad, and also when you see it from the other side: the impact a fatality has on those involved, including drivers, on-board supervisors and station staff.
During lockdown I was looking for something practical I could do and as a keen cyclist suggested to a friend that we do the London-Brighton bike ride. That snowballed and we now have a team of six. We’re raising money for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and will be doing the ride on September 19 [just after this issue of Rail Express goes on sale; anyone who would like to contribute to Andy’s fundraising total can click on www.justgiving.com/team/traincrewterrors].
We’ve already had messages from people who have lost people to suicide and support what we’re doing and that really brings it home and makes it very personal. There’s still a stigma around mental health so it’s hugely important to talk about it, like we do about physical illnesses.
RE: We totally agree. Have you done much training for the ride?
AJ: Yes, I’ve just come back from the Peak District where my partner and I took the bikes out on old railway trails, like the old Woodhead route. My interest in railways is driven by social history. As a teenager I worked on the Foxfield and Churnet Valley Railways. That cycling trip has also reawakened my interest in the north of the UK, where I’m from originally (Stoke on Trent and later studying/living in Leeds), so I wouldn’t rule out moving to a train operating company in the north of England as I still head up there quite often.
RE: For now, though, you’re with Southern. Have you had any experiences, good or bad, that perhaps you weren’t expecting when you signed up?
AJ: One event that sticks in my mind happened not long after I’d qualified as a driver and was working on the Brighton-Hove shuttle shortly before Christmas. It was late-ish on a Saturday night and as we got back to Brighton we found a passenger on the platform in significant distress. The station at that time was unstaffed, so my conductor and I felt we had to help. We called an ambulance and the situation was over in about 15 minutes and we got back on the train.
My final job of the shift was to take a train into Lovers Walk depot and while doing that I suddenly lost my focus as memories of the incident came flooding back. As a result I SPADed a depot signal. Fortunately, no one else was involved and there was no damage, but it proved a very valuable lesson about the importance of maintaining focus. The one good thing to come out of it is I’ve been able to support other drivers on a peer to peer basis who’ve encountered similar incidents and been involved in SPADs.
We’d all like to say we’ll be okay if it happens to us. But until it actually happens, you never really know how it will affect you – maybe not at all, maybe a little while later (as happened with me) or it can be days or weeks after. Sometimes it’s not until you go back to a place that it triggers a response in you – you just don’t know. I think what is really valuable is being able to speak to someone who has gone through something the same as or similar to you. That can make a big difference.
RE: Thank you for speaking to Rail Express so candidly. We wish you well in the next stage of your driving career and we’ll be cheering you and your colleagues on for the London-Brighton Cycle Ride!