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The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA; Richard Hardy




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           TALK SYNOPSIS

4 October 2012
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ON AND OFF THE TRACK

Bill Davies

10 September 2012

Bill Davies joined us to describe some of his experiences as a train driver and driving instructor. Bill started by pointing out that he is an exhibit at the NRM – more precisely a photograph of him and Peter Parker is on display to mark the introduction of driver-only operation. His Thameslink uniform, down to his thermal underwear, is also in the Museum.

His interest in railways started at the very early age of three when a neighbour took him on a trip to see the trains at Nottingham Victoria station. He was hooked. Despite his father being headmaster of the local grammar school, Bill was never particularly academically gifted and had already made his mind up that he wanted to be an engine driver. He entered BR on 8th September 1964 at Toton. This was an unfortunate time with the demise of the role of fireman and the impact of the Beeching report starting to feed through.

He had many anecdotes of the characters at Toton, such as 'Ricochet Ted', a shunting driver who always seemed to bounce his charges off the buffers; and 'Ben the Bog-House Man' – inevitable a social outcast. Bill's early task was cleaning steam engines – usually just before the engine was withdrawn. Within three weeks, Bill was given the task, as part of a demonstration to senior staff, of applying a new cleaning fluid for removing brake/oil emulsion off the new diesel-electrics. Unfortunately, the loco chosen was “straight from the box” and already pretty clean. But the cleaner was still applied and it was then blasted with high pressure water. With the senior staff congratulating themselves on the effectiveness of the cleaning fluid and moving off to enjoy their refreshments, Bill and his mate were left with the engine. Perhaps their efforts with the water jet had been a bit too enthusiastic as they had managed to get all the way through to the electrics. They could smell the burning and hear a crackling sound – and in places the outer shell was down to bare metal. Although they had to appear before their shed foreman to explain themselves, they were exonerated partly through the intervention of their union representative who questioned the absence of the provision of protective clothing bearing in mind the effect the fluid had had on the locomotive.

Toton drivers, being dominated by freight working, always had a reputation for slow running, possibly due to their eagerness to earn overtime on journeys – the rumour was the 20 mph signs were installed to try to get them to speed up! With the Beeching cuts making inroads into the multitude of depots, all the displaced staff were gradually concentrated at Toton – and everyone was senior to Bill! So he moved to Nottingham.

Here there was a more interesting mixture of workings - local passengers and expresses with long-distance freights. He had the opportunity to take trains as far as Immingham and Lincoln. They had always had difficulties with GN loco men and Bill told the tale of the experiences of a colleague who, on taking over a working at Lincoln for Nottingham was faced with a B1 which was reported as poorly steaming. A GN regional inspector joined them on the footplate and said all it needed was a good crew to get the best out of it - he tried to demonstrate but still couldn't get it working. Meanwhile the Nottingham crew had noticed that the previous GN team had forgotten to tighten the smokebox door. After the inspector had become sufficiently exhausted, the driver nipped up to the front, gave a quick turn of the nuts and the fireman had it blowing off in no time, accompanied by a reminder that all it needed was a good crew.

Bill moved to Kings Cross, initially working on the train-heating boilers, before becoming second man on the Class 31 outer-suburban services. Kings Cross was full of people who had become redundant from other sheds as a result of the Beeching cuts. After a while, Bill was promoted to the Leeds link, taking freights and sleepers to the North of England, Ultimately he qualified as a driver. Bill praised the Deltics as impressive locomotives able to handle the crack expresses; but he didn't like their boilers which were located in the noisy environment between the two engines. If you had to start one with the engines running, you knew about it.

While he got more pay as a driver, he couldn't get on the regular driving turns at Kings Cross, so he moved to Charring Cross which, at that time, was in need of extra footplate staff. It took him a year of route learning around Kent before he was fully qualified. He thoroughly enjoyed it, where else would you get paid for admiring the Kent countryside? In 1978 the Bed-Pan line was created and extra drivers were needed at Bedford, so five were moved there from Charring Cross, including Bill. At that time the section from Holborn Viaduct to Farringdon had closed, but as one of his last acts as head of the GLC, Ken Livingstone got 46M to reopen this 700 yards of route and so form Thameslink. Bill was in his element with his knowledge of both the Southern and Northern sections. By then he was a union representative, and enjoyed that, but he also felt it important to pass on his experience in other ways, so he became a driving instructor. However, in the mid 2000s, with privatisation musical-chairs and the explosion of “new management speak”, he decided it was time to take the redundancy package and go.

Throughout his talk Bill entertained us with his anecdotes of events and characters. He illustrated it with examples from his photographic collection, many showing amusing situations he had seen during his lifetime on the rails.