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Northampton, UK

Finding my own (Line of) Route

Finding my own (Line of) Route

It was only a matter of time before I ended up working on the railway, in one capacity or another. That journey probably started on wooden Brio tracks, a few hundred metres away from Frankfurt’s U7, and has now taken me (via Platforms 13 & 14 at Manchester Piccadilly) to a Year in Industry with Northern Trains, (by some measures) the UK’s largest train operator.

It’s certainly an interesting time to join the industry. Across the sector, the groundwork is being laid for Great British Railways to bring train and track back together. At the same time, the physical railway of the future has perhaps never been more uncertain, with the government’s vision of HS2 changing approximately every two weeks. But down on the ground, in the real world, the thousands of people that make up the railway family are doing what they’ve always done, day in, day out: running the railway. After years of (perhaps a little too much) jeering from the sidelines, it was time for me to see it from the inside.

In September, I joined the Operations (Central) team, mainly working inside the walls of Manchester Victoria. Here I worked with Conductor & Driver Managers, coming to appreciate the amount of work it takes to make sure our train crew are in the right place at the right time, with the right route knowledge, to run our corner of the network. I’ve had the chance to shadow a variety of roles. I joined conductors on trips out to Leeds, Kirkby and Crewe, and joined a trainee driver in the cab to Chester and back. In the Control room, I saw with my own eyes what happens when ‘the toast hits the floor’ – in this case the overhead cables coming down in Cheadle Hulme – and how the team hold their nerve and do their very best to use the information they have to respond the best they can. There’s no second-guessing when it comes to Control; you can’t keep everyone happy, and you can’t be on the phone to everyone at once either! I also tried my own hand at customer assistance during the busy Christmas Markets season, helping point passengers where to go and keeping them up-to-date on engineering work. To help make sure my shift wasn’t too boring, one of our Class 158s helpfully set itself on fire, requiring half of the station to be (briefly) evacuated.

My main job has been chasing unexplained delays; often an extra three minutes stood at a station can snowball into hours of reactionary delays. The phrase ‘look after the pennies’ bears (some) truth in the world of delay attribution. Despite popular mischaracterisation, there’s more to the exercise than allocating blame and cost; it’s also about identifying where things go wrong, and how we can improve (for instance tweaking the timetable).

That initial window into the world of performance led to the opportunity to jump across the Pennines and join Northern’s Performance team for the remainder of my Placement. It’s a chance to vary my exposure to the different working parts of the company even more, taking on new responsibilities and working with colleagues across the network to help keep the trains on time.

It’s an incredible privilege to find a job that I’m genuinely excited to wake up for every morning, and as much as I look forward to finding out where this journey takes me next, it’s also good to look out of the window and enjoy the ride.

David Frankal is Joint Chief Executive of Enroute, and did his Year in Industry with Northern Trains from September 2022 to September 2023. This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Trying out the LNER simulator with ETCS (European Train Control System) - coming soon(ish) to a railway near you!
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