First-Hand: I was the signalman's 'little pupil': John, who has worked on the railways for nearly 40 years, remembers how he learned his job

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I LEFT school in the late 1950s at 16 with no qualifications and have worked on the railways ever since.

My father never came home from the war so my mother brought me and my brother up on her own: it was a bit of a struggle, and we wanted something that paid well. My uncle was a guard on the railway and got me an interview for a job as a trainee signalman. I was never a train-spotter, but I loved travelling on trains.

In those days it was a secure job with a good wage, but the main appeal was the overtime. What I didn't appreciate was that it was shiftwork. Like now, you worked from 6am till 2pm one week, from 2pm till 10pm the next and from 10pm till 6am the next. Every so many weeks you'd get a day off and they'd get a 'box boy' to cover for you.

When we were training we had to record all the movements the signalman did, take all the phone calls and give the signalman advice according to the message. I remember the signalman calling me his 'silly little pupil' when I made mistakes - like relaying a message that didn't make sense - but that's how you learned.

The signalman looked after me like a father in some respects. He used a bit of discipline and we did a lot of chores, cleaning the toilets and polishing up the brass, it helped mould your character. It was terrible getting up at five o'clock in the morning, especially if you burnt the candle at both ends as you did as a youngster. I made a mechanism so that when my alarm went off a lever fell off on to a metal plate and rang a big doorbell to wake me up. I needed that.

I became a signalman after four years. Everything was done by codes on a bell system - the train would pass your signal box and you would send various codes to the boxes on either side. You needed concentration and physical strength, because you'd be pulling large levers to move the signals and alter the points.

I work in south London, and the job is drastically different nowadays. Modern boxes have no levers and bells, just buttons. You need more concentration than ever because you are dealing with far more trains. In the past they could be up to four miles apart, now it can be a matter of yards.

Modern signal boxes may have up to 10 different panels, each with up to 10 junctions to control, going in all directions. You can see where the trains are on the indicator boards, you get an overall picture in your mind and you set up the route you want them to proceed on. The information is sent electronically to a remote relay room which operates that route for you in a fraction of a second, working the signals and points. You can set up lots of routes within minutes so you are working much faster and having to think ahead.

I think the most unnerving thing any signalman has to deal with is a suicide on the line. It's happened to me several times. You're the first person the driver talks to. Their reactions vary, some are very brave and say they are prepared to carry on, others never drive again. Everything comes to a stop, you have to ring the driver's supervisor to ensure they are relieved at the first opportunity, call the emergency services then try to get the service running again.

Strangely enough you learn at an early stage to be objective, just to think of the train as a train, not something filled with 1,000 passengers. If you always thought about what could happen you'd be too worried to concentrate on the job, you'd never make a signalman.

There's always banter in the box but you have to concentrate on what you are doing at the same time. Drivers sometimes compare us with a snooker table, complaining that the first signal they come to is always a red followed by any other colour. They often call us 'Bobbie' which is short for policeman. We're out of public sight but we're still required to wear a uniform, I don't know why.

They are recruiting signalmen from the street now. We call them 'boil in the bag' signalmen. We also worry that there will be more and more administrators and fewer signalmen - there's no way the job could be done safely with any fewer.

It's still a job where you are your own master, but the shift work makes life difficult. Luckily my wife has been very understanding. I've never been able to do evening classes, which I would have liked, though. That's one of the drawbacks, it does affect your social life. But I can't say I haven't enjoyed it. It's been a good job and it still is.