The sky was grey and the rain was cold and hard as it tapped against the window that I was staring out of from my 1st class seat. I had found myself on the train to London’s Paddington Station after my quiet evening at home had been unexpectedly interrupted by a call from my employer informing me that I was needed to cover for another operator. He had been delayed on another route and I would need to take the train out to Reading Station where he would then be able to meet me and continue the service. It would be my first time driving by myself. I’d passed all of the training courses with ease, but it was something else entirely to be at the controls alone. I was so nervous that I thought I might throw up, but that could have also been the leftover tuna salad sandwich that I had for lunch.
The train slowed to a stop and I stood from my seat, stepping out onto the platform and making my way towards the main station concourse. Paddington was an impressive structure and had been in operation since 1853. Over 30 million people pass through these halls every single year including a particularly famous bear. It could be a little overwhelming if you didn’t know where you were going, but I made my way through and found my train waiting for me at Platform 3. It was a British Rail Class 43, a high-speed train capable of speeds up to 148mph. Designed in the 1970’s it has become a staple of high speed travel in the UK. I entered the cabin and took my seat to begin my departure proceedings, I wasted no time in making my preparations as I only had about 15 minutes to spare until my scheduled 19:30 departure time and I’d be damned if I was going to be late on my very first trip.
I located the Headlights and switched them to DAY and the Reverser to FORWARD. There were so many knobs, buttons and switches in front of me that for a moment I began to feel overwhelmed and wondered what I had gotten myself into, but after a few deep breaths I began to recall my training and started to feel at ease. I unlocked and opened the left side doors so that the passengers could begin boarding. I had a few minutes to spare so I went over my routine a few more times in my head, making sure I hadn’t missed any steps. Then the time arrived and I closed the train doors and set my brakes to RUNNING. I hit the buzzer twice to signal that I was ready to go, and when the light turned green I gently pushed the throttle forward and the steel beast lurched to life.
I found the switch for the windshield wipers as we began to pick up speed, the rain coming down even harder now. We pulled out of the station and I was given the all clear to really get some speed going, so I pushed the throttle further to make our way up to 100mph. I have to admit that the amount of power at my fingertips was a bit thrilling. London began to whiz past me as I pushed the throttle to MAX, bringing us to 125mph before putting it in idle and settling back into my seat to relax. Once you got going there wasn’t much to it besides monitoring your speed and enjoying the scenery, so I took a sip from my coffee thermos as I watched the world go by. There were 32 miles to go before reaching our destination and we looked good to make our scheduled arrival of 20:01.
There was something soothing about the sounds of the engine and creaking metal as we sped past towns like Ealing, Southall and Yiewsley as we travelled west. The gentle vibration of the train putting me in an almost meditative state. One of the things though that you need to be careful of was complacency. It’s easy to get too comfortable and take your eyes off of the ball, but you never know when something might happen that you’ll need to react to in a split second, and the lives of everybody on board are in your hands when you’re at the controls. It’s a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
At about 19:45 I began to reduce my speed as Reading station was soon approaching. I pulled back on the throttle and slowly applied my brakes. This was definitely the most harrowing part of the experience so far. It’s easy enough to get yourself up to speed as you begin your trip, but slowing down a 70 ton train going 125mph and stopping it on a dime is another matter entirely. I continued to slow further and further down until I was coasting into the station at a mere 20mph. The platform came into view and applied my brakes one final time, coming to complete stop. I exhaled and sat back in my seat, my hands sore from gripping the brake lever so tightly.
I unlocked and opened the right side doors, allowing the passengers to depart as new ones prepared to board. I opened the cabin door and stepped out onto the platform, my job was done and the regular driver would be here momentarily to take over the rest of the route. It was 19:55 and I had managed to get my passengers to their destination with a few extra minutes to spare. Not too shabby for my first day.
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