Thursday, 24 May 2018

Rural life is so different to work on the Underground

Rural life is so different to work on the Underground

LIVING in a quiet, rural village gives David Bowen respite from his often stressful job as a Tube train driver.

He moved to Whitchurch nine years ago and lives with his wife Hayley. He enjoys walking, boating and taking photographs of the countryside as well as being a parish councillor.

It’s a world away from working on the London Underground, where he has experienced his share of dramas and lives with the ever-present threat of terrorism.

Mr Bowen, 46, says: “I love the rural atmosphere in this area. Everyone knows each other and it’s very close-knit so it’s the polar opposite of London, which is what’s so attractive.

“I love my job, but after the hustle and bustle of work it’s comforting to jump on the train to Pangbourne and step back into a much quieter world.”

He joined London Underground in 2000, following in his father’s footsteps, and worked as a station assistant for a year before becoming a driver.

He works on the Piccadilly line, which runs from Cockfosters in north London through central London to Heathrow Airport. It is the fourth busiest line on the Underground with about 210 million passengers a year.

Mr Bowen, a father-of-four, grew up in Hillingdon in west London. He left school at 16 and worked in building supplies for several years before moving to Colnbrook and becoming a machine supervisor at the Mars confectionery plant in Slough.

He hated his job and eventually he applied to join London Underground. He had done the same about 10 years before but had turned down the offer of a guard’s job at Morden station in south London because it was too far to commute to.

This time he accepted a job manning ticket gates at Paddington, where he checked tickets, answered customers’ queries and gave directions as well as summoning help in emergencies. Occasionally he would oversee the station’s CCTV monitors. Mr Bowen recalls: “It was full-on and quite a jump in at the deep end but we had a big team and everyone worked together.

“It flowed very naturally and everyone had a good time — I don’t know anybody who didn’t enjoy it because you got to meet so many people.

“Despite how busy it was, we still had ‘regulars’ who we recognised and would chat with in the mornings. We even had good relationships with the beggars as they would tip us off about ticket touts.

“Most people were very polite — there’s this perception that the public are nasty but that wasn’t true. If any group stood out as less pleasant, it was the commuters. I don’t know why, but maybe it’s because they’re under pressure to get to work on time.

“The main challenge was crowd control during the rush hour. We had to watch how busy the platforms were getting and close some gates if necessary because overcrowding could cause a serious accident.

“There were often drunk people in the evenings but they were never trouble. They were just happy to be out having a good time.

“Dealing with the public was the best part of the job. If someone was panicking because they were going to miss a flight, for example, it was very rewarding to help them find another way of arriving on time.

“You have to be a certain type of person to enjoy that work because there was a never-ending stream of passengers firing questions at you.”

After a year Mr Bowen could have applied to become a station manager like his father Alun, who was in charge at Ickenham for most of his career.

Instead, he chose to become a driver as he had always been interested in trains and drove the steam train at Whipsnade Zoo, near Dunstable, at weekends as a teenager.

His driver training lasted six months as he learned the rules of the track, basic train maintenance and how to work safely alongside the electrified rails, which carry a high current and can kill if they are touched while live.

He then spent 12 weeks driving a real train with passengers under supervision before being allowed to go solo — this was before simulators.

Drivers have to pull back a lever which progressively increases the speed of their train while pushing it forwards applies the brakes. The lever has a “dead man’s switch” that must be squeezed at all times or the train will stop. These were installed following the 1975 Moorgate crash, which killed 43 people and is thought to have been caused by a driver collapsing.

Each train has a dashboard display showing whether the engines and brakes are working and every Tube station has mirrors and monitor screens so drivers can see all the way down the platform.

Mr Bowen says: “Going forward is easy but the train weighs 120 tonnes even while empty so braking is quite an art, especially when you have to stop within a couple of inches at each station.

“It’s different under various conditions, like the number of people on board or the weather and track conditions. People joke about leaves on the line but that can keep a train skidding for hundreds of metres. There’s definitely a risk of overshooting if you’re not careful.

“I was very nervous on my first day and again the first time I drove on my own but I took to it reasonably quickly and without anything going wrong. It takes several months before you’re fully comfortable.”

Mr Bowen generally starts work at 9am but sometimes it’s 6.30am.

He says: “Some people find it boring but every day is different for me. I’ve been an instructor since 2003 and meet lots of trainees but you don’t meet the public so often as a driver.

“It’s quite smooth from day to day with few major incidents and when they do happen, your training kicks in.

“You basically have to deal with everything. There’s this idea that we’re overpaid and lazy because we ‘just sit there all day’ but we’re prepared for all eventualities and may be the only staff member on scene when things go wrong, whether that’s a breakdown or someone jumping in front of the train.

“That’s never happened to me, thank God, but it probably happens seven or eight times a year on the Piccadilly line.”

Once Mr Bowen drove over a landslide near Osterley station, which is above ground, and he had to evacuate the train.

One another occasion a drunken passenger became trapped between his train and the platform edge after tripping.

He recalls: “That was pretty horrible — I don’t know exactly what happened but they were very severely injured and may have lost limbs.

“We’re lucky to have a good counselling service as well as a ‘trauma buddies’ scheme where drivers can talk and share their feelings with more experienced colleagues.”

Terrorism is a constant threat and all Tube staff must be alert for suspicious behaviour or packages.

During the bombings on July 7, 2005, one device was detonated towards the rear of a carriage on the Piccadilly line near Russell Square, killing 21 people.

Mr Bowen recalls: “Everyone was shocked and almost numb when it happened because it was so overwhelming and almost unreal.

“I was friends with the driver and it was incredibly difficult for him because he’d walked away safely, which at least gave some reassurance that our cabins are pretty secure, but at the same time he knew he’d been close to something so horrific.

“Quite understandably, a lot of us struggled to go back to work after that. I took two days off, as did many of my colleagues.”

Mr Bowen is a member of the train drivers’ union Aslef, which has led the industrial action on the Southern rail network.

The union is fighting the roll-out of trains without guards, which rely on the driver to ensure it is safe before moving.

Drivers say this is dangerous because visibility from their cabins is poor while critics claim the union is protecting jobs which are no longer needed.

Mr Bowen says: “Aslef has a very valid point. It is totally about safety and not money, as some have suggested. There have been incidents where people have lost their lives. We’ve had driver-only operation on the Underground for many years but we have very good monitoring systems at every station. What they have is horrendous by comparison.

“I understand why people complain about the inconvenience but there’s a serious danger and the strikes are a short, sharp shock which hopefully convey that.

“Our industry is heavily unionised but I think we’re fairly modest with strike action. There’s this image of us always being on strike but Aslef rarely does it and much prefers to negotiate amicable solutions.”

He shares the union’s opposition to driverless Tube trains, which are being proposed under a new scheme called New Tube for London, which was first proposed by former London Mayor Boris Johnson.

“They will never happen and we won’t allow it,” says Mr Bowen. “The infrastructure isn’t in place to support them — for one thing, you’d need to install platform edge doors at all stations.

“You need someone on the train when you consider all the things that can go wrong. There always has to be a human being to fall back on.”

Mr Bowen joined Whitchurch Parish Council in 2015 and hopes to stand in this year’s Oxfordshire County Council elections as Labour’s candidate for Goring ward, which is currently represented by Goring Parish Council chairman Kevin Bulmer, a Conservative.

His priorities would be improving the county’s roads and campaigning for the reinstatement of bus subsidies, which were abolished in April last year.

Mr Bowen says: “Being a parish councillor is fascinating and a chance to give back to the community but I get frustrated at having to pressurise the district council or county council to get things done.

“I know this is a strongly Conservative area but I’d like to provide effective opposition at the very least.

“I’m strongly behind public transport and want to look at restoring the bus subsidies or setting up alternative services. Those catastrophic cuts were made with no thought for how it would affect the elderly and vulnerable.”

In his spare time, Mr Bowen enjoys boating on the Thames in his 24ft sports cruiser, which is moored at his riverside home in Eastfield Lane.

He regularly walks through the South Oxfordshire countryside and is a keen photographer.

However, he has no plans to give up work in order to enjoy more leisure time or even become a full-time politician.

“I’m very happy and don’t plan to leave any time soon,” says Mr Bowen. “They keep pushing me towards management but sitting at a desk isn’t appealing.

“It’s a great career because it’s very secure with many opportunities to progress.”

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