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Britain’s hardest-working train

Gallery photography by PAUL BIGLAND.

It’s just after 0300 on September 4. The lights of London twinkle, but the roads are quiet. This is not a city that sleeps, however, and as RAIL heads for Wembley in a taxi there are still a few people about, stragglers still making their way home after last night’s England football match.

Buried away as part of a large railway complex, Alstom’s Wembley depot is hidden to the right of the West Coast Main Line. It is behind the large DB Schenker yard used by cross-Channel trains, while London Underground and London Overground share the DC lines that pass it. At the moment, there are no trains.

The taxi driver deposits RAIL, having asked what we are up to, and why. This question will be repeated throughout the next 24 hours… a lot!

Alstom is the starting point for VW119. This is a diagram for a Class 390 that is believed to be the longest single duty for one train in the UK. The job starts at 0422 when it first leaves Wembley, and ends at 0228 the following morning when it arrives at Longsight, Manchester. And RAIL is here to follow it all the way, as well as to learn about how Virgin Trains operates the busy WCML expresses.

Selected for the diagram today is 390104 Alstom Pendolino, an 11-car 125mph electric multiple unit decorated with Alstom brandings. Anyone would think that it has been especially selected. Alstom’s Derek Swanson and Virgin Trains Fleet Delivery Manager Andy Grundy both chuckle at the suggestion, but say it is mere “coincidence”.

The ‘390’ will operate the 0422 empty coaching stock to London Euston, the 0526 Euston to Liverpool Lime Street, 0847 return to Euston, 1130 to Glasgow Central, 1640 return, 2300 to Manchester Piccadilly and 0220 ECS to Longsight. All told, this will be 1,3831⁄2 miles. Both CrossCountry and East Coast have diagrams more than 1,000 miles long, but RAIL believes this is the UK’s longest.

The ‘390’ is one of 11 at the depot that night. It is not prepared any differently to any of the other trains on depot. It may have had its controlled emission toilets emptied, but not today. And it will have been washed.

Unlike some train operating companies, VT does not allocate its ‘390s’ on a diagram that it will follow all week, although there are plans for where they will end up. Says Grundy: “We will have so many that need to be at a depot elsewhere. Those that need a C exam, for example, will end up at Edge Hill or Longsight.”

VW119 is a diagram that can use either a nine or 11-car Class 390. Wembley has a selection of trains that it can use.

Jordan Clarke is senior production manager at Wembley, with responsibility for ensuring his team gets the trains ready. He began working for Alstom five years ago. He moved up to system support three years ago, and then production manager before his current role two years ago.

“I fell into this. I have an HNC in electrical and electronic engineering. I lived in Holland, where I went to play rugby. I was a professional in their top league.” He was there less than six months. “I thought I had better go home and get a career.”

There are ten team members and a further three technicians. Additional training is taking place for more staff.

“We lost a Pendolino last night,” says Clarke. “We get the issues notice, and then if there is a problem it moves to the counter measure.” He says there are 12 trains to maintain tonight, although one (390155) has gone to Oxley for repairs.

Clarke shows RAIL the ‘Control Room’, where the team marks the work being done for the ‘390s’. The work on 390104 reveals that it has undergone a steam oven clean, chiller repairs, and there was an issue with a ‘crew corridor smell’, which draws chuckles from Swanson and Grundy. It has been sorted, and a ‘VIP clean’ has also been carried out.

“This was our shortest downtime for a train,” says Clarke. “It came in at 0045, and that was early. There was an hour and a half for its daily exam and clean, and 30 minutes for safety checks.”

The driver has it for an hour for preparation. “This isn’t a bad night,” says Clarke.

Any set can be chosen for VW119, although Grundy explains: “If we prepare for a specific diagram that means we cannot swap if needs be. There is no major difference, although we may notice it used more water so would take longer to replenish.”

This set will not have its CET emptied at Wembley, but it will be done at Longsight. Says Grundy: “We will fill the toilet waters, kitchen and shop, too. It is not measured, it is just done to capacity. There is a cleaning team.” The shop needs 1,000 litres of water, and the toilets 1,500 litres.

“Stock for the train is delivered to Euston by DHL staff,” says Grundy. “This is done at Euston, Crewe, Liverpool, Preston, Glasgow and Manchester. My concern was 390121, which was in trouble. It lost its tilt and had pantograph issues, but we sorted it.”

VT’s Steve Cutter is the man charged with taking 390104 to Euston. Based at Euston, he’s a main line driver, but tonight he is working as a ‘ferryman’, which means his job is to take ECS ‘390s’ between Euston and Wembley. He started at 2230 and will finish at 0700.

Alstom staff drive the ‘390s’ around the depot, but VT drivers take over on the main line. Cutter has been a driver for ten years: “I always wanted to be a driver. My grandad was on the railway as a steward. He did the ‘Brighton Belle’ and the boat trains. I love the job,” he says, before adding in a broad London accent: “But I don’t like the shifts.”

With RAIL, Swanson and Grundy on board, Cutter shows everyone how to get coffee in the catering area.

“I suggest you need the good stuff,” he grins, after he hears what lies ahead. “It’s full fat here, none of that decaf stuff.”

He starts 390104’s long day at 0412 - early. We roll to a signal, where we are then held as a London Midland Class 350 races south. It’s still dark outside, but London is waking up.

At 0424 we join the WCML for the first time, and at 0431 we arrive at Euston. It is full of EMUs, and is busy with staff flocking round the trains.

Ours is the first VT departure of the day. We are on Platform 15, and are met by DHL staff who will load up the train with food and drink. At 0434 the staff board. Train Manager Kash Minstry will download reservations, which takes around 15 minutes.

The first chef of the day is Clive Holland. He’s described by the other team members as a ‘character’, and is already hard at work. He’s been on the railway for 27 years. Before that he was a Royal Navy chef.

“I used to travel the world. This is the only train I will do today. I work 41 hours per week. I’m based in Euston, but live in Milton Keynes, and catch the London Midland train in.” He says he left home at 0330, and that he will be back at London for an 1130 finish. When he gets home, he will be off to the gym, he says.

His job is to cook and prepare breakfast. In front of him are three packets of bacon, each with 12 rashers. There are 48 eggs.

“Going down on this will be quiet, so perhaps I’ll do 12, but on the way back maybe 40 or 50.”

He notices trends. “During the holidays parents bring their children, and they all have food. Nearer Christmas is also busier.” He only prepares for First Class - the Standard Class trolley is served by the shop.

Mark Rogers, a customer service assistant, walks past. This is a regular train for him, but the rosters were due to change as this issue of RAIL went to press, and so that will change. While talking to RAIL, he is waving at the train manager of the 0530 to Glasgow Central, with whom he commuted to work.

“It’s like a community. I can put tea on a table at a certain time because I know that is where people will sit. And I know that is what they want.”

He only works in First Class. “My service manager dictates where people will go. I don’t do the shop.” He suggests that on this train, the shop would not be very busy.

At 0510 passengers start to be let on. London Euston has a surprising number of people waiting for various trains, although not for this one, it seems. Rodgers says that for this train, there tends to be a lot of group tours, people going to visit friends, and those who have been out in London.

“There are a lot who are booked with us to Crewe, and then have to change to catch the London Midland,” he explains. The return journey will be very busy, he says.

Rogers tells RAIL: “I don’t go to Manchester. I do Preston and Liverpool, and Birmingham. I work 41 hours per week.”

Prior to working on the railway, he was a qualified baker and worked at Morrisons. “I wanted something to do. I lived in Scotland and I transferred to London. I’d love to do this in 20 years, and I’m not just saying that.”

After this round trip, he will have a break before working the 1203 to Birmingham New Street. He will finish at 1515.

“I don’t work weekends. I have my boy then, and he lives in Glasgow. He travels down on VT. He knows the staff as well as me! They look after him, and he loves it.”

At 0526, on time, 390104 rolls away from Euston. At 0527 Katie Hartley arrives with coffee. RAIL asks her to keep it coming. A former beautician who ran her own business, she enjoys the attention of the camera, and is certainly chatty with staff.

RAIL takes a walk through the train. There are only a handful of passengers, and most are asleep.

At Watford Junction three Direct Rail Services staff board, having worked a nuclear train south from Crewe to Wembley. Guard Dave Bramley says that they use this train regularly, and have a set move to get it. “We even know where to get the right door for a good seat,” he says.

At Milton Keynes Central we are passed by 390043, which is operating the 0530 to Glasgow. Here the number of passengers seems to double. A lot are wearing suits.

Grundy is checking his mobile. “So far, everything is where it should be,” he says of his fleet. At 0600 all 50 Class 390s that need to be in traffic are available. Grundy smiles: “So far, it is a good day.”

At 0642 we stop at Nuneaton. This diagram includes the infamous situation whereby VT cannot call at this station, because London Midland (which manages it) will not provide a member of staff. A number of passengers board.

“This will turn into a commuter train at Crewe,” says Hartley. At Stafford she watches as more passengers board. There must be more than 100 on it by now, and that then probably doubles at Crewe. They all rush to the front two or three carriages.

The choice of the 0726 departure (the VT one) is that it is quicker than the LM offering. The DRS boys leave here. And the early-morning gloom has lifted, to be replaced by the sun. “Always shines in the North,” says Grundy.

At 0747 we arrive at Runcorn, where yet more passengers are waiting to board. Four minutes earlier, photographer Paul Bigland had received his first anti-HS2 Tweet of the day. The issue of capacity is one that plagues the WCML, and the core reason for HS2, and yet people still troll Bigland because of his views. More will appear through the day.

As we cross Runcorn Railway Bridge and the River Mersey, 390104 glides past a queue of cars on a main road. The drivers are commuters destined for Liverpool. While sunny views of the river are nice, perhaps they could, and should, be on the train?

As well roll into Lime Street, Rogers says that he has served 15 breakfasts, which is about average. There were also faces he recognised, as predicted. We are early at Liverpool, so there is a chance to observe proceedings.

Reservations begin to appear at 0815, and at 0823 passengers are let on, ready for the 0847 departure. They seem to be largely leisure travellers.

VT has a lounge and two station staff at Lime Street. They don’t want their pictures taken, but are happy to chat. They man a human barrier, rather than the usual ticket barrier. The lounge opens at 0930. Surprisingly, even though this is the last peak-time southbound departure, RAIL is told that this train is quite quiet.

Minstry is voluntarily helping on the barriers. He doesn’t have to, but his ideas make sense.

“By doing this here, I don’t have to worry about people with the wrong tickets on the train, and so I can do my other duties better and buy more time,” he explains.

Minstry chats and jokes with the passengers. He has a real way with them - there are no arguments and no confrontations, but there is a sense of firmness. He gives advice and help, always with a smile and a laugh.

“I’ve been with Virgin Trains for 61⁄2 years. I worked at Milton Keynes ticket office before that. I started at Silverlink, then it changed to London Midland. I was on the first London Midland promotions and books,” he says, punching the air with pride. He left LM six months after its launch.

When he returns to Euston, it will be the end of his shift: “I’m done, I’ve had enough.” He had clocked on at 0454. RAIL calls him a lightweight, and he chuckles.

“My background is micro-biological. I came from India. That is where my family is. My uncle is an engineer on the railway there.”

There is only one instance where Minstry has to turn someone back. A gentleman had a ticket for the 0921 London Midland train, and was travelling to Crewe. Minstry wouldn’t let him on. “It’s not even one of our trains,” he says to RAIL with a quizzical look.

We depart Lime Street on time at 0847. At 0850, Hartley passes through with her coffee again.

Grundy explains that Alstom has a “tech guy” at Lime Street, to check the train if needs be. They check the Train Management System (TMS) to see if there is a problem, and can travel on the train if needed. That’s not the case today.

At Runcorn, a healthy mix of First and Standard Class passengers board. This is a useful station for Merseysiders who don’t want the hassle of trying to reach Lime Street. Hartley pours yet more coffee here, and is called an “angel” by Matt Bambury, a former British Airways steward, and now Hartley’s colleague. When RAIL tweets this later, we are accused of “extreme sexism”.

At 0921, the train calls at Crewe, where VT Reources Planning & Operations Manager Simon Bytheway and VT press officer Richard Stanton board the train.

Bytheway tells RAIL that the current on-board crew will drop in numbers for the next run: “The number of staff drops to four for the Light Bites menu, and then three until 1700. Then it’s the peak service again, which increases to five, and after 1900 it is back to three staff.”

The driver of this 0847 to Euston will have booked on at 0812. He will then drive the 1307 back to Liverpool, arriving at 1519. It will be a Liverpool-based driver.

Bytheway says he tries to ensure that the catering teams are kept as complete teams. “Ideally you get them to work together,” he says.

As the train speeds south at 0940 a cleaner, employed by Voith, comes through emptying bins and clearing tables. This is a regular occurrence.

Bytheway continues: “A driver can do up to ten hours as a longest shift. For a team manager it is 11 hours, and the catering team is 13 hours.” He says Euston is the biggest base for staff. All told, VT has 3,300 staff.

RAIL catches up again with Minstry. He describes his trip: “It has been easy so far apart from the Crewe guy . I haven’t sold any tickets as everyone is on an advance.”

He adds that when we left Stafford, the last stop before Euston, there were 114 passengers in Standard and 38 in First. That’s quiet for this train.

RAIL walks through the train, and finds the behaviour of passengers interesting. Of those 152 passengers, only one is physically looking out of the window - the rest are reading tablets or working on laptops. Even books and magazines are a rare sight.

As 390104 races through Rugby at 1013, the weather has turned grim again. In First Class, a man who looks like a respectable businessman is intensely playing a motor racing game on his iPad.

We arrive at Euston at 1059, three minutes early. The passengers get off and head for the concourse, passing the queue of those waiting to board the 1130 to Glasgow Central, which is what 390104 will now operate.

The turnaround for the train is quick, and passengers start boarding a mere eight minutes later. But the queues are long and deep. They wait, patiently, while station staff check their tickets. There are a large number of leisure travellers, rather than the expected businessmen.

Up front in the driver’s seat is Paul Ross, who is based at Preston. He drove the 0758 departure from his base south, and is booked to arrive back at 1340. “It’s a good day’s work,” he says. Ross is being assisted by James Shuttleworth, VT senior assessor.

The cab of Driving Motor Standard Open (DMSO) 69204 gives the impression of being both large and small - large in that there is a seemingly massive crumple zone beyond the driver’s desk, small because with four of us it seems cramped.

Ross receives the ‘Right Away’ at 1130, and slowly pulls away. We are signalled onto ‘Line X’, which used to be the Down departure line, and pass Direct Rail Services 57302, which is being used by VT to train drivers on the route via Greenford for diversions.

Ross explains: “From a standing start to Tamworth, the average speed will be 110mph. That is one hour.” Primrose Hill is where the tilt equipment “kicks in”, at which point Ross will be able to increase 390104’s speed from 55mph to 125mph. Five minutes after departure, he does just that.

Shuttleworth, who is also based at Preston, is busy making notes, recording the performance of the Pendolino. “They are flying machines,” he says.

At Willesden we are at 105mph, and as we pass Wembley for the fourth time in seven hours, we are at 125mph. “It’s also a climb up to Tring,” notes Shuttleworth.

He explains the power of a ‘390’ to RAIL: “An 11-car ‘390’ has 7.8kW of power. That is 8,985hp, which works out at 748hp per motor.”

The WCML is packed with commuter trains, other Pendolinos (including a queue of them at Watford as we speed through at 1143) and freight trains. The line is certainly busy.

We tilt our way north, with the tilt capability far more obvious in the cab than in the saloon. “It didn’t take much to get used to it, because it was introduced gradually,” explains Shuttleworth.

RAIL plans to leave the cab after Watford, but Shuttleworth recommends staying for Linslade Tunnel.

This single-bore tunnel is phenomenal, in that the ‘390’ tilts as it enters. In days gone by, steam crews were told to stand still, as there was a chance they would become disoriented. Windows have to be closed in case they fly open and create a distraction, such is the force of entry into the tunnel mouth (at 125mph). Shuttleworth offers RAIL the advice: “You will **** yourself, but remember, you are not the first train to go through it today.”

Sure enough, 390104 races towards the tunnel, around a blind corner. As the tunnel appears, at 125mph, Paul Bigland lowers his camera and RAIL is convinced we are going to hit the tunnel wall. RAIL braces for impact… and the ‘390’ enters the tunnel. RAIL breathes a sigh of relief. “That was fine wasn’t it,” grins Shuttleworth as 390104 races out of the other end.

Back inside the train, Stephen Smith is
busy. He has worked on the railway for 26 years (at Preston for the past 18 of those), and is today’s train manager. Currently he is working on the problem of an air-conditioning fault in Coach E.

“There is an overheating HVAC. It’s probably not enough to take it out of traffic. I’ve got the Train Management System to check it.”

He shows RAIL that it is about 2°C warmer than the other carriages. “I will offer people the chance to move, or get them water.”

Is he allowed to give product away? “I am the train manager. I have to manage the train and situations that arise.” He says he has done this before, and has never been warned for it.

He has live CCTV, which he can use to monitor the train. There is no access to a replay, but Smith will only use it if there is a problem in a vehicle, or if there is an unruly passenger. Smith notes that there is also a problem with a toilet, which is running out of water. The likelihood is that it will be locked out of use at some point.

Smith is from a railway family. “I was at Longsight. I got there with InterCity. I went to InterCity CrossCountry at Preston, and then to Virgin when it took over XC. I stayed with them then.

“Dad was an engine cleaner at Spring’s Branch, then a fireman, and a driver. He passed on steam in 1966, and his final job was chief traction inspector at Lime Street. He took early retirement in 1998, but that only lasted 18 months before he went to work with VSOE.”
Smith’s brother is a driver for Northern Rail at Manchester Victoria, and his son is a cleaner for Voith.

“It is a great job. I am an enthusiast, too. I am sure at some level everyone on the railway is.”

RAIL walks through the train again, and finds it busy. Again, there are lots of iPads, and  lots of families and people chatting. One little boy is tapping at an iPad, wearing headphones that look about to envelop his head. Coach E, the overheating one, has a sleeping dog in it. Coach F is quieter than the others… perhaps the giant purple bear that is on a seat (did it buy a ticket?) is putting people off? In First Class, Roy Walker, former presenter of Catchphrase, is travelling north.

Stanton explains that the most popular item on this train in the past four weeks has been a cup of 12oz Fairtrade tea. The most popular item on the return (the 1640 from Glasgow) is a 500ml can of Grolsch lager. Service Manager Colin Jefferson tells RAIL that Mondays and Fridays are the busiest days.

The first stop is Warrington Bank Quay (we arrive at 1310 - early), followed soon afterwards by Preston (at 1338). Smith makes an announcement to passengers that the entrance at Preston is closed due to alterations to the station, and provides details how to get out.

One customer service assistant is replaced by another. The station is very busy, and RAIL watches as passengers get off, although a large number also board. This is surprising - on RAIL’s previous trips north, trains have tended to empty out here.

Also boarding is VT Customer Experience Manager Stuart Davison, whom Stanton describes as a ‘rising star’ within the company.

His remit is to look after the Anglo-Scottish trains north of Preston. The challenge, he says, is to deal with the rising numbers travelling on this section. “Everyone wants a seat, and so we have to think on our feet.”

Davison says the market has a lot of leisure travellers and families wanting to visit Edinburgh and the Lakes, adding: “I think this summer, there has been a big change in people going north. The Commonwealth Games had a massive impact.”

He reiterates Smith’s ideas towards passengers. “The staff are empowered to not be restricted. It allows a ‘can do’ attitude. If they are doing something for the passengers, who are we to stop them? It is the right thing to do. Our leisure travellers go once, maybe twice, by rail. We can increase that to three or four times. We want to showcase our staff.”

At Lancaster, 390104 is met by a fitter. Employed by Alstom, he will have travelled from Carlisle to meet the train and work on it. He is there, probably, to fix the HVAC.

RAIL has made its way to the cab of 69204 again. Walking through, the ambience was noticeably quiet, with more people using Tablets again. One teenage lad was spied covertly eating a box of doughnuts in the vestibule of a coach. And there were a large number of very tall bags - at Lancaster, one poor Hispanic woman appeared to be dragging a suitcase that was taller than she was!

From Oxenholme, RAIL travels in the cab to Carlisle. David Dansky is the driver. Based at Edinburgh, he has been on the railways for 30 years, and a driver for 26. We are currently six minutes late.

“The dwell times kill us,” he says. “It’s the marshalling of people, and the bags.” He says that with the timetabling, anything up to eight or nine minutes late here should still mean the train arrives on time at Glasgow.

He had driven the 1000 from Glasgow Central to Euston and back to Preston, and is returning on this. He swapped jobs as this was easier, operationally, for all concerned.

“I started at Polmadie in 1984,” he says, as Bigland questions how young he looks.

“I was promoted to work at Selhurst in 1988, but that must have been the shortest-lived transfer because I was back in Scotland eight weeks later. I spent ten years at Yoker, and moved to Glasgow Queen Street. I spent four years there and then moved to CrossCountry at Edinburgh in 2002. When Virgin lost that, I stayed with West Coast.”

Railways were not his choice of career: “I left school and called into the careers office. I tried for engineering work or on the rigs. There was nothing doing. I looked at the list and saw railways, and asked for that. I thought it would be technical.

“It was at Buchanan House in Glasgow. I hated it - I am not an office person. But the lady who I worked with was engaged to an operations manager. She said there was a young lad who wanted to stay on the railways, but not in an office. I got an interview as a driver’s assistant at Polmadie, and there we are.”

He breaks his tale to point out that he is easing off the power, as 390104 cruises over the top of Shap Summit at 80mph. This once famous bank has been tamed by these trains. “I wish I could show some of the old steam drivers what these can do.”

Dansky loves his job. “I never get tired of it. I love this. How can you not? Look at the view,” he says nodding towards the Lakes.

He explains how VT drivers work. “I am given a sheet of paper with the times for the train. I drive to that. If I am early, then I ease off. It saves power and is smoother for the passengers.”

What does he think of the ‘390s’?

“They are sure-footed. Never had one fail to pull up, or wheelslip.”
At Carlisle, we bid him a farewell and retreat into 390104. Frankly, RAIL needs a rest. At Abington in the Scottish Lowlands, the crews begin cleaning the train. It’s still busy with passengers. One is in the aisle with a pram, and apologises as RAIL tries to pass.

Arrival at Glasgow Central is two minutes early. Due in at 1601, 390104 has arrived at 1559, and as RAIL alights, Dansky is waiting for us. “It may be worth noting, but I didn’t apply power for the last 27 miles. I coasted,” he tells us.

But we are early, notes RAIL. “Aye…” he grins, before bidding RAIL a cheery farewell. He’s off to Florida on holiday soon.

We have a new Train Manager for the return journey. VT’s Richard McCarthy also boards. He is in charge of Virgin Trains’ Twitter page - the world’s most followed railway Twitter feed.

A subscriber to RAIL (we like him!), his job is to get messages out for travellers. He works alongside the control team at Birmingham, and recently stopped a train following a complaint from a passenger about a strange noise. “We appreciated that,” he says.

At 1640 we set off. The shop is already doing a good trade, and the on-board team scurry around their passengers. A walk through the busy train again reveals that it is largely leisure travellers, that a second dog is now on board… and that Coach E is still a bit warm!

Again, most passengers are using their iPads. Phones and laptops are being scrutinised, too. The busiest coach is D, where there are lots of youngsters.

Coach A (the quiet coach) is also busy. A teenager is sat outside in the vestibule, chatting on her phone to a friend. In just a few seconds, RAIL hears: “Yeah”, “no way” and “oh my God”.

Retracing my steps, a group has started singing in Coach C… loudly! In D someone is reading a newspaper, which actually stands out. And in E there is a woman designing what appears to be her dream house. There are several screwed up bits of paper around her, suggesting her plans are not going well.

At Carlisle, Jefferson gets off. He has been with us since the 1130 departure, and laughs in sympathy at RAIL, as we have to keep going for about another nine hours.

At Preston, Chelsea Asson (one of the customer service assistants) gets off, and tells RAIL she’ll tweet us to cheer us up. She has a two-hour wait before working a train back to Glasgow. She finishes at 2330. Lucky woman!

The setting sun provides great views as we head south, and it’s time for another tour through the train. After Warrington (the last booked stop), it is still incredibly busy - lots of passengers are travelling all the way it seems.

One man is watching an old episode of Minder on his iPad, while electrical gadgets remain the order of the day in all coaches. Lots of passengers appear to be looking at maps on their phones. And the dog has gone!

Standard Class seems to have more people reading magazines, rather than Tablets. One passenger with a muscular physique is reading a muscle-building magazine. He glances sheepishly at his arms and chest when reading an article, as if to see if his workouts are right. When RAIL passes him later, he is still doing it.

As we pass Crewe at 1943, a steam engine (6201 Princess Elizabeth) is steaming in the town’s Heritage Centre. This is also home to an APT and a Class 87, so four generations of WCML express passenger traction are in close vicinity.

At one table sits a woman with two bottles of red wine. Both are open, and Bigland notes that she had been at the shop earlier for one. So that makes three!

Elsewhere in her coach, two men are discussing relationships. In Coach C, the group that was singing is now listening to music, while in the same vehicle one passenger has apparently bathed in perfume. Also in Coach C, a man on his phone claims: “It’s like an iceberg.” It isn’t!

In Coach E, the hot one, a woman is slumped with her feet on the table and her toes touching the window.

We roll into Euston early. As we are held outside, a giant Hello Kitty balloon appears… and someone proceeds to wipe its face. “You see all sorts,” smiles McCarthy. He’s off home to Derby, via a pint at St Pancras.

The team that travelled from Glasgow and Preston has been replaced, and RAIL takes a walk along the side of 390104 while Bigland takes photographs.

At 2200, passengers are allowed to board for the 2300 departure. This is after the staff have boarded. And they are characters - four on-board staff tonight, plus a driver.

Service Manager Glen Dellar is first to greet RAIL. Another enthusiast, he says: “I worked on the Manchester Pullmans 30 years ago. I went to King’s Cross and did the Night Riders. I did the Master Cutler from St Pancras. I have always worked in catering.”

He books on at 1900 and finishes at 0210, and is based at Manchester. His favourites are the Mk 2s and High Speed Trains that he used to work on, but “progress is progress,” he says of the ‘390s’.

He informs RAIL that we are using the booked route tonight (often it is diverted because of possessions), and takes a look at the bookings. “Four in First Class and some Megabus reservations in Standard,” he says.

The TM is Tracy Lightfoot. She’s a bubbly character who seems far too awake and cheerful for this time of night.

“I always do the 2300. I have been a TM for 12 years. I started at 16 with BR at train inquiries. Then I was platform staff at Manchester Airport. I then became a trolley dolly with Virgin Atlantic. For the past 12 years I have been with Virgin Trains.”

Happily married now with two children, she looks after her mum during the day. “I did like Virgin Atlantic work,” she says. “Well, I was a single girl travelling the world…” she grins, and goes off to begin her work and greet passengers. She’s very friendly, but adds: “I treat people like I want to be treated. I don’t take trouble.”

Chloe Anderson has worked for VT for four months. She mans the shop. If Lightfoot is bubbly, then Anderson is simply a chatterbox.

“I worked within John Lewis in Cheadle Hume. I was talent spotted by Virgin. I wanted to work on the airlines, but I was too short. I like this job. I like that things happen. It’s nice.”

RAIL asks what she means, and she regales us with tales of passenger shenanigans and Lightfoot having her hands full with drunks and unruly passengers.

“It’s not like work. I get bad customers, but everyone who is bad I can cheer up. I am paid to make people happy.”

We depart at 2300. Dellar is already working on the orders that need phoning through to DHL.

RAIL goes for a walk again. Again, passengers are on Tablets and laptops. But the train is quiet - the staff joke that perhaps it will be cancelled in the near future. Coach G is empty, although Coach U is busy with people chatting and eating takeaways. The clientele is generally younger.

In Coach F, passengers are mainly on their phones. Coach E, at last, has started to cool down, and it is here that RAIL encounters the first passenger asleep. Someone is reading a paper in Coach D, while Anderson is busy in the shop. There are young children sleeping in Coach C.

In Coach B, there is a passenger loudly enjoying his strawberries, while Coach A is quiet. Lightfoot makes an announcement after the Watford stop that “announcements will kept to a minimum, so people can sleep”. And that’s that. RAIL retreats to the shop for a drink and some Haribo sweets, while in the shop, gin seems popular.

At 0100, a quick walk through the train reveals that most of the passengers are asleep.

Finally, at 0152, the ‘390’ arrives at Manchester Piccadilly. We are early. The staff bid RAIL a cheery farewell as they leave, and DHL starts to unload and then load the train.

At 0228, a few minutes later than planned, 390104 sets off for the short trip to Longsight, and rolls into 32 road where it will have its CET emptied.

Here RAIL leaves the train, and we are met by Grundy and Swanson, who cannot believe we did it. Grundy says the faulty HVAC is being investigated, and after a tour of Longsight, he tells RAIL: “390104 was going to stay until 1409 today, but 390127 is late, so it will do the 0548 ECS to Manchester.”

He then tells RAIL the statistics of the day. “The Public Performance Measure was 94.4%. The target is 88%. That is a good day. That is 285 out of 302 trains arriving within ten minutes of booked time. There were two trains more than 30 minutes late.”

He laughs and tells RAIL: “You can come back if that is the effect you have…” RAIL is too sleepy to respond.

At 0425 we leave the depot by taxi for Piccadilly. Swanson is off to Glasgow, Bigland is off home to Halifax, and RAIL is off to catch the 0505 to London Euston, appropriately worked by 390153 Mission Accomplished. An appropriate end!

PS: RAIL stayed awake through the entire journey… but Paul Bigland slept south of Carlisle for nearly on hour!

  • This feature was originally published in RAIL 758, on 1 October 2014

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