The ‘office’ for a train driver

(A view from the front of a railway locomotive)

The view from the "fireman's side" of GM27. The "fireman" or assistant train driver sits on the right hand side and the driver on the left. Taken from a stationary train just out of Canley Vale Station, looking south, during trackwork. Taken on 10/01/2011. The right-hand track has been pulled up and the roadbed will be thoroughly rehabilitated before the new track is laid.

I’m going to overlook “Fred’s” questions for a moment and talk about the “office” that a train crew works in – the locomotive.

I’ve worked in all sorts of offices: in the late 80s and early 90s in a couple of smoky camera shops, before smoking was ruled out in the workplace.

I’ve worked in air conditioned “flight decks” where Mainframe Computer Operators ensure the smooth running of a large mainframe two floors below.

I’ve worked in office cube farms and had views over Darling Harbour, out to Sydney Heads, and the back of the head of the bloke in front of me.

I’ve sat at the back of lecture rooms for 4 years of an IT degree and another 4 years of a Bachelor of Divinity.

I’ve sat in an enclosed car port looking over a green backyard and I’ve sat in an old house converted to a Parish Centre, looking over the church’s BBQ and the kids’ play area.

So I like to think I’m adaptable to different kinds of offices. A lot of train drivers from other companies look at our locomotives and criticise them because they are generally older. Some of our locomotives in daily service were built in 1952! And the crews from the other mobs have come to expect the things our old girls lack, like air conditioning that always works without dripping water on the floor (or into a bucket), and all sorts of amenities like microwave ovens and stereo systems. Sooks.

But they do the job and are not unpleasant. They are air-conditioned and modern seating has been installed. The noise is not at all unpleasant.

In Australia (with the exception of those have-to-be-different Queenslanders, and the USA-inspired iron ore railways in north-west Western Australia), train drivers sit on the left-hand side of a locomotive or passenger train. This is because the railway signals are usually on the left-hand side and it aids with sighting them.

Modern diesel-electric locomotives have fantastic visibility, and most of our older locos do as well. But in the days of steam, the driver could only see down his side of the engine, so the signals had to be on the same side as the driver. Given that our trains run on the left-hand track in multiple track areas, that’s the side the driver sits on.

So, as an assistant train driver I sit on the right-hand-side – or where an Australian car driver sits.

Well, that’s the position of my ‘office chair’ sorted out. The seats themselves have armrests and headrests and recline. This is not pandering to ‘lazy loco crews’ but allows for helpful changes of sitting position when one is sitting for a long time on a job.

Our older ‘Bulldog’-styled locomotives have a lot of styling from the automotive industry. That’s nor surprising, because the US company that designed the “bulldog” is EMD, a division of General Motors. So we have locomotives with ‘window winders’ like cars have, ashtrays like the old Holdens had (but no smoking is allowed, of course!), and even glove boxes.

The actual nose area is like a storage room, with a door separating it from the cabin. Behind that door is a treasure-trove of items like cleaning equipment, emergency safety equipment and day-to-day safety equipment.

At the rear of the cab is the locomotive’s electrical cabinet, which is a convenient location because sometimes it needs to be accessed!

Of course, the engine compartment is where it all happens. On locomotives with full-width bodies, the compartment is actually the engine room. The diesel engine is started and stopped in there and it provides access to the cab at the other end, if the locomotive is double-ended. On locomotives that are ‘hood units’, that is, without full width bodies and a catwalk on either side of the bodywork, the various parts of the engine are accessed through doors in the body panels. Some crews prefer accessing the engine through the hood doors; my preference is a full-width engine room where I can access what I need without flipping open a million doors and locking them shut again afterwards.

Somewhere on the locomotive is a handbrake or two – depending on the locomotive it’s either in the cab or at the back of the engine room.

And most importantly, each of our full-width locomotives have toilets. The GM class locomotives (from which the lead photo for this entry was taken) have porta-potties like people use in caravans. The ex-Victorian S and B classes have proper toilet compartments with air-operated flushers (that wakes up a sleepy crew member when he uses one for the first time!). I am not that au fait with all the facilities on the other locos but our hood units don’t cater for such ablution needs. What’s why it’s not uncommon to tell your mate you need to ‘check the couplings’ from time to time.

Most locomotive cabs have fridges and all have a hotplate upon which you can boil the billy (I’ll describe the ‘kit bag’ in a forthcoming post). More modern locomotives even have a microwave oven.

Another feature of more modern locomotives is that they have a sound system – a car tape deck/radio or even a car CD player/radio.

Speaking of radios, the driver has a specially modified satellite telephone which is linked to the open channel radio system (known as “WB” – I’ll explain that another time). This setup also allows for satellite tracking of a train so its owner/operator can know where it is at a given time.

Of course, the driver has his ‘control stand’ where the throttle and direction controls are located (and on the more modern gear, all the electrical switches he needs); there is a separate brake stand for the air brake equipment. He has a ‘dash board’ with all the air gauges and the ammeter which shows how many amps the loco is pulling as it picks up its load.

Nearly every locomotive has a couple of 12v outlets like a car cigarette lighter outlet, so some crew members bring laptops and inverters for times when the train is ‘put away’ (idle) in a siding or otherwise cannot proceed. Portable radios and mobile phones are often charged throughout a shift as well!

Moving from air-conditioned office towers and data centres to studies in my home and/or makeshift offices in old halls or residences was a transition I had to make when entering paid ministry. I survived. I am enjoying this transition much more!

All in all, it’s not the Ritz, but it’s not bad! And unlike a lot of church offices, it doesn’t have rats!


About tdrev

Follower of Jesus. Locomotive Driver.
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