'I hate being stuck as much as the next guy' - confessions of a First Capital Connect driver

Borehamwood Times: A steam train at Elstree and Borehamwood in the early 1900s A steam train at Elstree and Borehamwood in the early 1900s

Every year, over three million people travel through Elstree and Borehamwood station to get to work in central London. Commuters constantly complain about the delays to the train service - so Borehamwood Times reporter Anna Slater spent the afternoon in a train cab with a driver and met First Capital Connect staff to find out more about the delays.

In the early 1900s, the gentle chug of the steam train as it rolled into the station was a gateway to another universe.

For those who had never travelled further than their village shop, it was the sound of promise, the sound of excitement, the sound of a world filled with endless possibilities.

But time has made us weary, and the breezy chatter that once filled the platform has now been replaced with an electronic voice, which is ‘sorry to announce the 12.43 from Hendon is delayed by nine minutes’.

After countless calls to First Capital Connect, to find out more about the signal failure at Blackfriars or when the train at Borehmwood is likely to be on the move, the poor press officers must have got tired of hearing my voice.

Over the last few months, angry commuters have e-mailed me with details about another late service or to vent their anger about another packed train - and I was keen to find out why.

I might be 24-years-old but I still think of trains as being called Annie and Clarabel - so with a nostalgic wave to my Thomas the Tank Engine days, I climbed into the train cab with driver, Dave Newman, at Harpenden.

Last week, over 95 per cent of trains ran on time on the Luton to Sutton line, which runs also runs through Elstree & Borehamwood and Radlett stations.

Dave has been driving the train on this route every day for the last 12 years and loves his job, but when something go wrong he bears the brunt.

“I hate being stuck as much as the next guy,” he said, as the train looped through the track to get to St Albans.

“The commuters have Twitter on their phones so know more than me during delays, I never know what is going on - which is ironic because I am the one taking the blame.”

If a train breaks down or a signal fails, it can takes engineers up to half an hour to get on site and longer than that to fix the problem.

After a quick stop at Elstree and Borehamwood, the train gurgled into life again and we were off - zooming through the tracks at a speed of 90 miles an hour.

The thought of revving up to a solid 70 down the M1 is enough to make me weak at the knees - and Dave must have noticed the colour drain from my face because he said: “This is nothing - the fast trains get up to 120 miles an hour.”

The soft choo-choo of the horn filled the cab as we glided through the tracks and into the tunnel, before reaching West Hampstead.

Here, I met FCC worker Derrick Kingdom - “the only manager in the world who loves it when his staff sit around twiddling their thumbs”.

He led me to an impressive control room near the station. The computerised board spanning the entire wall, with multicolored dots showing where the trains are, has a very James Bond feel to it.

The guys who work here are the ones who tirelessly try to regulate the service after a track fire, signal failure or broken down train - so you lot can get home in time to catch the 7.30pm showing of EastEnders.

Trains struggle in the cold. Luckily, here in bright old Britain it rarely gets colder than 27C so the only train problems we have is when some clumsy commuter drops their suncream on the track. Oh, wait...

During last month's snow, people were left stranded in Borehamwood for up to an hour, watching train after train whizz pass them on en route to Mill Hill.

Despite the chaos outside, train controller Steve kept his cool (quite literally, it was minus ten out there) and hatched a clever plan to make sure nobody was left out in the cold.

Making the trains skip stations is actually a clever way to make the service catch up with itself. It is a complicated job and while Steve is explained it to me I was struck with how difficult running a train network actually is.

So next time you got up on the wrong side of the bed, spare a thought for the poor rail workers who are doing the best they can to make sure you get to work not a minute later than 9.01am. After all, they are only human.

Comments (3)

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1:07pm Wed 13 Feb 13

John Cartledge says...

Sorry, Anna, but that photo was taken in the early 1950s, not the early 1900s. The locomotive has British Railways' emblem on the side, which places it between nationalisation in 1948 and dieselisation in 1957. The old footbridge shown was in roughly the same location as the new one which is due to be built in the next couple of months.
Sorry, Anna, but that photo was taken in the early 1950s, not the early 1900s. The locomotive has British Railways' emblem on the side, which places it between nationalisation in 1948 and dieselisation in 1957. The old footbridge shown was in roughly the same location as the new one which is due to be built in the next couple of months. John Cartledge

9:57pm Wed 13 Feb 13

Habcaz says...

I am go smacked by Anna's patronising tone! For £3k a year, I should be able to get home when I want, not when FCC can be bothered. As for her comment implying that most problems are caused by passengers, what a nerve!

Finally, please remind me next time I am standing in the cold and telling the office that I will be late yet again, as countless trains whoosh by, that I should be grateful the clever way of making trains catch up on themselves. Yes, it's called by leaving passengers waiting at the stations.

Utter tosh, and this article is both an insult to exorbitant fare-paying victims of FCC and what used to be the noble of journalism, reduced to comic-book scribbling by Anna Slater. Shame on you.
I am go smacked by Anna's patronising tone! For £3k a year, I should be able to get home when I want, not when FCC can be bothered. As for her comment implying that most problems are caused by passengers, what a nerve! Finally, please remind me next time I am standing in the cold and telling the office that I will be late yet again, as countless trains whoosh by, that I should be grateful the clever way of making trains catch up on themselves. Yes, it's called by leaving passengers waiting at the stations. Utter tosh, and this article is both an insult to exorbitant fare-paying victims of FCC and what used to be the noble of journalism, reduced to comic-book scribbling by Anna Slater. Shame on you. Habcaz

11:31pm Wed 13 Feb 13

Alfred Waz says...

Seriously? Was this article aimed at 5-year olds? What sloppy patronising 'journalism' that, as a very long suffering FCC 'customer' who suffers the daily abysmal 'service' meted out by this incompetant company, is actually quite distasteful to read.

The commentor above, Habcaz, is quite right in what he says that, actually, more commuters are displaced, or left stranded in the cold, by FCC 'whooshing' trains that by what this process is trying to acheive. It has nothing whatsoever to do with trying to get the service back on time for the passengers benefit, and ALL to do with getting the service back on time to avoid penalty charges levied on FCC for timetable failures.
The number one priority at times of trouble should be for FCC to concentrate on getting late passengers home, NOT leaving them stranded any longer than necessary. But FCC care very little about their travelling public... This can be seen on a daily basis by their slapdash approach to a timetable, their filthy grafitti splattered tin-can trains, their random heating arrangements, the eye-watering prices... and some members of staff for whom a course in customer service wouldn't go amiss.

FCC treat the Thameslink as a cashcow, leeching every penny they can from the long suffering commuter and giving little in return. Its all about the shareholders baby.

Oh, and I'm surprised that your 'journalist' found a driver who had the ability to talk. Most of the ones that drive the trains I get on remain firmly mute, leaving passengers to suffer in silence when things go awry.

According to the FCC Twitter feed the reason drivers don't give out info at times of trouble is because they are busy driving the train. Not when its stopped in the middle of nowhere they aren't. And how hard can it be to drive and talk at the same time, its not like they have to steer.
Seriously? Was this article aimed at 5-year olds? What sloppy patronising 'journalism' that, as a very long suffering FCC 'customer' who suffers the daily abysmal 'service' meted out by this incompetant company, is actually quite distasteful to read. The commentor above, Habcaz, is quite right in what he says that, actually, more commuters are displaced, or left stranded in the cold, by FCC 'whooshing' trains that by what this process is trying to acheive. It has nothing whatsoever to do with trying to get the service back on time for the passengers benefit, and ALL to do with getting the service back on time to avoid penalty charges levied on FCC for timetable failures. The number one priority at times of trouble should be for FCC to concentrate on getting late passengers home, NOT leaving them stranded any longer than necessary. But FCC care very little about their travelling public... This can be seen on a daily basis by their slapdash approach to a timetable, their filthy grafitti splattered tin-can trains, their random heating arrangements, the eye-watering prices... and some members of staff for whom a course in customer service wouldn't go amiss. FCC treat the Thameslink as a cashcow, leeching every penny they can from the long suffering commuter and giving little in return. Its all about the shareholders baby. Oh, and I'm surprised that your 'journalist' found a driver who had the ability to talk. Most of the ones that drive the trains I get on remain firmly mute, leaving passengers to suffer in silence when things go awry. According to the FCC Twitter feed the reason drivers don't give out info at times of trouble is because they are busy driving the train. Not when its stopped in the middle of nowhere they aren't. And how hard can it be to drive and talk at the same time, its not like they have to steer. Alfred Waz

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