Today is my rest day, the midweek freedom being the payoff for shift work that includes almost every weekend. In a gesture of support and solidarity, I offered to ride as a passenger on my friend L’s train. She’s an almost-qualified Northern line driver, and thus far she’s been fine apart from worrying if someone she knows being on the train will distract her, or cause undue tension. Willing guinea pig that I am, I loaded up with book and ipod at her request, ready for the less-than-thrilling return trip to Morden.
To my complete and utter shock I ended up getting an official cab day. Not for me the indignity of being herded in with the other cattle, I was allowed a seat up in the cab, with my very own hi-vi to mark me out as an authorised presence, and my staff pass clutched quietly in my pocket just in case. This is a pretty big deal, but absolutely okay so long as the instructor operator is there, and L has a cracker in her witty trainer G.
First off, I must admit to a little bit of pride in my friend – from her self-doubt of three weeks ago, she’s now braking and pushing buttons and announcing nonsense like an absolute pro. It’s not an easy job, not the way some wankers liken the experience to a big Scalectrix. The amount you need to know, the potentially devastating outcome of jumpers or crashes, the 0% room for error: it’s actually quite an impressive achievement.
I’m thinking of applying anyway, since my current transport job is menial to say the least. Being a member of the overall organisation’s staff though, I’m one of a select few eligible to apply. The money would be nice, but the autonomy and methodical side of it are the most appealing. G. knew all this before I ever showed up (and indeed, was the one who arranged the whole thing and got clearance for it). Can you imagine my absolute shock when she told me to get in the damn driver’s seat? Up until then I had been marvelling at the change in perspective from being at the front of the train, all that stuff you can’t see as a passenger. I quickly adjusted to the darkness of the tunnels, and was trying to absorb everything like there was a quiz at the end (there wasn’t).
At first I thought they were taking the piss, but her explanation of how the old “dead man’s handle” works should have tipped me off long before L. bounced out of the seat with premeditated glee. I actually pulled the lever-y bit and made it go, and slowed it down enough to stop at a station! It’s frightening how much power you can feel behind that one bit of metal though, £4 million worth of train and 800 bodies completely under its direction. Obviously there was a hovering and supervising hand so that I couldn’t do anything dangerous, and it’s all permissible with the instructor there. But holy mother of pants, my heart was in my mouth the whole time. That delicious sort of panic where your brain runs at a million miles an hour, but all the while you can feel your body responding exactly as it’s supposed to, succeeding despite desperate panic. Natural and utterly freakish at the same time, is what I think I’m trying to say.
Other than that, I was busy asking inane questions, taking the piss out of L. (who’s confident enough to talk and drive, bloody amazing progress for her) and gazing out at the odd dead station like an overexcited child. I was buzzing! I think I have an underlying current of transport geek somewhere in my system, but with the Tube there’s just this sense of history and curiosity that I can’t avoid – too much of a control freak to ever be a blindly accepting passenger perhaps – I need to know how things work, be able to place it all in a bigger picture.
It was confusing, the sudden bursts of light and longer stretches of darkness and century-old grime. The myriad lights twinkling off in the tunnels and the sudden sharp bends that made me gasp just a little. Getting off but being ready to go all over again, realising that it’s worth pushing my continuing probationer status to get into the job at the earliest opportunity. Think of that peace, largely uninterrupted as you concentrate on the job in hand. Certainly less irritating than telling people that the nearest underground to Victoria station is, in fact, Victoria.