Rail life

(This is a piece I wrote for the paper which never ran – a journey in the cab of a train)
Winter-time, half-eight in the morning, and the platform at Limerick Junction is bloody freezing. My fingers are numb as the intercity passenger train from Dublin to Cork slaloms slowly into the station.
I’m here to fulfil the childhood dream of a large number of boys, and probably a good few girls too: driving a train. Of course, I won’t literally be driving – God knows I can barely be trusted with the command of a car, never mind a 440-tonne behemoth, powered by a 3200hph, 112-tonne locomotive, with a maximum speed of 100mph, carrying hundreds of passengers. But you can always pretend.
I hop into the cab of this Class 201 locomotive, next to Dariusz Wojcik, who’s actually driving today, and Tony Cooke, acting as co-pilot and my guide for the day. He’ll be answering all the dumb questions I have – What does that do? What’s this for? Why are you doing such-and-such? – so Darius doesn’t get distracted from the demanding job of steering this steel beast to Cork.
That’s the first surprise, attendant on my opening question as Tony tells Darius that they’ve got the green flag and we’re about to pull out from Limerick Junction: “Do you basically just press a button and off it goes on auto-pilot?”
The two men laugh indulgently and Tony says, “That’s what everyone thinks, that there’s hardly any actual driving involved. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. You have to constantly concentrate; there’s always something you need to be doing.”
He’s right. Far from my presumption that train drivers more-or-less flick a switch to cruise control, Darius is continuously active. All the way to Cork, without pause, he pushes or pulls levers, checks dials, notes different signs for distance and speed limits, blows the horn. He speeds up, slows down, gives it more welly to get the train up a gradient, brakes gently when coming down or easing into Mallow Station, our only stop between the Junction and Cork.
Then there’s the famous “dead man’s switch” – in this case, a pedal – which safeguards against a driver dying or passing out. Darius must press it every 30-40 seconds; if not, an alarm sounds, and he then has seven seconds to respond before the automatic braking system kicks in.
Tony records the time at various spots along the route for their records. Darius rings Central Traffic Control at one stage with a warning of “low rail-adhesion conditions” on the track (or “rail-head” in professional parlance): this freezing morning has made the iron icy and potentially dangerous, and would eventually lead to our train arriving in Cork twenty minutes late.
There’s another misconception I was happy to see demolished: that because there’s no such thing as traffic-jams on the railway, every train should arrive exactly on time, every time.
“There are so many reasons for delays,” Tony says. “For example, as you saw this morning, ice on the rail-head forces us to slow down at certain points, for safety reasons. Leaves on the line, that’s another one, although people think we’re joking when they hear that. But they make the track slippery, so you have to go easy.”
Darius adds, “There’s constant maintenance work needing to be done as well: tracks, bridges, station buildings. All these things can knock a train off-schedule.”
They’re a thoroughly likeable pair, friendly and informative, though their biographies read quite differently. Darius (he goes by the pet-name Darek) is in his mid-thirties, originally from Katowice in Poland and now living in Dublin. He’s worked for Irish Rail since 2008 and driven a locomotive for 2½ years.
Tony, meanwhile, is in his fifties, a true-blue Dub from Cabra and 25-year veteran of the train service. He’s also involved with the Railway Preservation Society, which takes care of those beautiful old steam trains we all remember from childhood story-books and films.
That’s the thing about rail travel – and what makes this such a cool experience – it’s deeply embedded in our subconscious. Think of all the memorable movie scenes set on or around trains: Bogey and Bergman’s tearful goodbye in Casablanca, James Bond fighting that KGB giant in From Russia with Love, or more recently, Denzil Washington struggling to control a runaway freight train.
There have been countless great songs about riding the rails, great books, TV shows, paintings, even computer games. The train is part of who we are, on a cultural and psychological level.
And unlike the equally elemental automobile, the railway has always seemed more beautiful, romantic and evocative, and not defined by ugly concrete and uglier death. There’s something poetic about rail travel.
I’ve always felt, too, that trains are a radically different way of looking at a place. It’s almost like you’re seeing the “back” of Ireland: all those small gardens, industrial yards, uninhabited areas, quiet fields far from the farm’s centre. It’s as though going by road presents you with a straightforward perspective, whereas railways give you a sideways view.
And being on the track itself, in the cab, takes that a step further. We ghost through the freezing fog towards Cork, following the line as it rolls elegantly into the distance, and it feels like being cloistered away from the noisy bustle of the “real” world. It feels, in fact, like a state of mind almost as much as a point in space.
The sense of stepping outside the boundaries of distance and time, the moment stretching ahead into a hazy horizon, bleached by the low winter sun. An unhurried unfolding, a repetition of itself, mile after mile. The grandeur of it, the parallel grace of the lines, their timelessness, the whole simplicity of the notion of rail.
Finally, we reach Cork. My trip is complete and one childhood dream, at least, is fulfilled. I say goodbye to Tony and Darek, and stroll out of Kent Station.
Strolling where? To Cork Port, of course, just behind the train station. Ships running free on the boundless seas: there’s an enduring romance in that, too.
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