Paddington rail disaster: Bleeps, bells, and warning lights

In the Driver's cab
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The Independent Online

The track looms up at an alarming speed and numerous signals flash past. Overhead, 25,000 volts of electricity course through myriad cables as the train thunders past.

The track looms up at an alarming speed and numerous signals flash past. Overhead, 25,000 volts of electricity course through myriad cables as the train thunders past.

Inside the cab of the Silverlink 321, warning bells ring constantly to ensure the driver's gaze does not waver from the line ahead. For a railway ingenue, the experience is like taking part in a virtual reality video game. For Neil Fraser, a driver with at least seven years' experience, this is a routine day on the rails.

The cab interior is spartan compared to a plane cockpit. Among the buttons on the dashboard is a joystick to sound the horn and a lever for the brake. At Neil's feet is a board which requires all his strength to power the train. If he collapses with a heart attack, this will spring up and bring the vehicle to a halt.

To be a driver, Neil had to undergo nearly a year of rigorous training, which is topped up with twice-yearly competence tests. Good co-ordination and perfect eyesight are vital, as well as a knowledge of his route equivalent to a London taxi driver's.

Train-driving often runs in families. Indeed, Neil followed his brother on to the railways. He says he was attracted by a job which avoided the nine-to-five grind.

On this crisp Friday morning, he has already spent half an hour checking the 10-year-old train for any loose couplings and then completed another check before the 09.24 train for Bletchley pulls out of Euston. Within minutes of leaving London, he has already safely passed more than half a dozen signals and speed signs, and carried out a brake test.

The bleep from the train's automatic warning system (AWS) echoes round his cab every few minutes to warn him of hazards. This is triggered by a magnet on the track. If he ignores the shrill ring, his brakes will bring the train to a screeching halt.

As graffiti-covered buildings melt into patchy fields, the train thunders past orange-jacketed maintenance men mending the track. They raise their arms to Neil not just in greeting but as a safety measure to reassure him they have seen the train.

The cab is plunged into darkness as it enters a tunnel. It is easier for Neil to focus on the patch of light framed in the tunnel arch. His only distraction is the constant ring of the AWS and the sound of his horn to warn other trains he is approaching.

Close to Bletchley, Neil spots two amber lights warning him to slow down. Further up the line, a Connex train is crossing on to the same stretch of track as the Silverlink train. The warning bell rings in the cab, then two red lights appear ahead. The train slows to a halt. By 10.13, the Silverlink 321 has slipped into Bletchley station and safely delivered its passengers.

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