Job Title: Industrial Abseiler
Location: London Underground
I have come to realise that white was not a good choice of colour for London Underground stations.
As soon as you arrive, it is impossible to miss the dirt and grime all over the walls. To me, it is a helpful reminder of the enormous cleaning job ahead.
The most recent Tube work I was involved in was at Westminster station. As an industrial abseiler, I cleaned thick layers of black dust that had been building up for weeks, and left covered from head to toe in the muck.
Most of the work is based in London but I live in Ipswich. Work on Tube stations takes place outside of normal working hours, and I never react well to the alarm waking me up at midnight. I leave myself just enough time to have a cup of coffee and be out of the door to begin an 0130 shift. While I am on my way to work, the rest of the world is on its way home from a night out on the town. I have seen some very strange things going to and from a night shift, but nothing I can tastefully repeat in RAIL.
When you descend the stairs to a Tube station, you expect it to be bustling with noise and people, but there is an eerie quiet at that time of night. The only sounds are a few chinks of metal from maintenance workers and the clicking of shoes as security guards wander the tunnels. The different teams all know each other, but there isn’t enough time for much more than a quick hello because everything has to be finished before the public comes back, and no one wants to waste time chatting.
On arrival, the crew and I will sign in and sit together for a toolbox talk to discuss the plan and what is needed on the job. A risk assessment officer will have researched the project a few days before we arrive, and will present us with a guide to the location.
There is no such thing as an easy abseiling job - the architectural challenges are different from site to site and there are always obstacles to hamper us. Most of the work on the Underground is painting over graffiti and changing light bulbs, but what makes this job difficult is not what you are doing, it’s finding balance to be able to do it.
The area is cordoned off to stop Joe Bloggs and his friends wandering into harm’s way and then we are ready to begin. There will be two of us countering each other’s weight, and for the next three hours it’s just us two on the ropes.
I didn’t pay much attention in school and I had applied for the first available job going… a window cleaner. I have been doing this job for 14 years now, and it has changed a lot - there’s no way I thought it would lead to abseiling for a living.
With new health and safety rules, ladders have become a thing of the past and the market for industrial abseilers has taken off. It’s not just at railway stations either; it can be anything from cleaning windows on the top of London skyscrapers to bird-proofing churches, and everything inbetween.
From the outside it can seem like an exciting job, but to me it’s like any other trade. My friends say I must be mad doing it, but it’s safe as houses. The equipment is checked everyday and I haven’t even heard of one accident in this industry, let alone being in danger of having one myself.
When I get the chance to look down on the city, it is one of the best views in the world. When I’m in a Tube station, however, seeing everything being turned around and prepared for the morning travellers is a job that not many people are lucky enough to see, but it has a massive impact on how the underground system works. It’s not everyday you get to be part of something like that.
Each station takes just over three hours, and it must be finished before the public starts to filter in. The tight deadline means we work through the night until it’s finished, and it can get pretty intense when the clock is ticking down and you are behind the schedule. There are 14 of us on the team and we have all been here for at least five years. There is a confidence in our ability to get the job done, and I don’t think we would have pulled through some of our tougher shifts without it.
We finish at 0400, about the same time as my legs start to feel a little numb. All the equipment and chemicals will be packed away into storage cupboards by 0420, and we will debrief with another cup of tea just before signing out - taking the opportunity to inspect our work.
I normally get back at about 0630 to eat dinner, which I suppose is breakfast, read the paper and bath. I take the chance to spend time with my family whenever I can, but going out isn’t an option unless I know I have a few days off.
My sleeping patterns are erratic and I can have anything between six to ten hours. But that doesn’t bother me, a normal routine would drive me crazy.