I’m not a train driver. I have sat in a cab and made a train move. I’ve even made one stop in roughly the right place. That’s far from being a train driver.
So the overgrown schoolboy in me jumped at chance to have a go in Thameslink’s Class 700 simulator that’s housed in the new three-road depot at Hornsey, North London. Training Simulator Project Manager Barry Thomas displayed enormous patience in showing me the ropes.
Such simulators are now new. The railway has been using them for many years. Thameslink’s has a full-size cab with images projected on a large front screen and side images on monitors placed over the cab door windows.
Thameslink uses its simulators to train drivers on the cab and controls of a Class 700. It has several of the operator’s routes loaded onto it although it’s not used for route learning because not all of the signals display correct route information.
There’s much to learn. Barry’s fingers danced over various touchscreens as he entered headcode and other information, pausing to ask me to push a yellow button with my right foot. I knew there would be a vigilance treadle on the floor but I wasn’t expecting a big yellow button. In truth, I’m still not sure what’s it for.
Some of the complexity comes from the many safety systems fitted to a ‘700’. It has AWS and TPWS as all rolling stock on Network Rail’s lines have. It has ETCS and ATO that are together vital to run Thameslink’s planned 24 trains per hour through its central core between St Pancras and Blackfriars.
Once these systems are ready, making the train move is easy. Select ‘forward’ and pull the combined brake-power handle back towards you, having first lifted the handle slightly. The railway on the screen moves towards you. We were leaving Kentish Town and heading south. Soon we’d dived into the tunnel that leads to St Pancras, with the station providing a good opportunity to try stopping. Well, we did stop but had I passengers waiting they might have had to hurry along the platform from their usual positions.
Time to try ATO. I folded my arms and off we went. A double-yellow and a single yellow passed the cab. I could see the red approaching and the ETCS planning screen confirmed that we should be stopping. The red signal glided past. “I guess that shouldn’t have happened,” I remarked. “No,” said Barry.
No matter. I’m sure the real trains don’t do that. I tried a few more stops and starts over the next few miles while Barry disappeared into the control room to demonstrate rain, snow and fog. The fog was very foggy! I discovered that a ‘700’ rolls well. Gradients were not always apparent so the train would speed or slow, making it a bit harder to keep to linespeed. Added to this is the numerical speed display which made me concentrate hard on trying to maintain a precise speed. I wonder if real drivers with ordinary electro-mechanical speedometers do this to the same extent?
A Class 700 has what the aviation industry calls a ‘glass cockpit’. There is an analogue air pressure gauge and some switches but much of the train is controlled from touchscreens. On the left is an information screen that a driver can use to interrogate many of his train’s system. Say, there’s a fire. The screen will display an alarm and the driver can discover where and on which coach the alarm has triggered. It might be in the saloon, the toilet or under the floor.
If it’s in the saloon, the driver can use internal CCTV to see what’s going on. At the same time, the air-conditioning will do its best to vent any smoke while also increasing incoming air in the two adjacent coaches to counter spreading smoke. A toilet alarm means the driver must go and investigate, there being no cameras in the toilet. The same applies for underfloor fires, the driver must go and see what’s happening, having secured the signaller’s authorisation to descend to the track.
Cameras are a key part of the driver-only operation under which Class 700s work. A bank of screens on the driver’s left switch on when the doors are released. You can zoom in on a screen if needed. The simulator provides passengers. They normally stand, swaying slightly. Their sway made them appear zombies, or perhaps under alien control. Either way, it was slightly disconcerting.
They can be more animated. I had a pair of fighting youths at one station and Barry added a collapsed passenger straddling the yellow platform line at another.
Barry had mentioned that the simulator included the route from St Pancras to Potters Bar via Canal Tunnels. These tunnels are yet to open to passenger traffic so I had to have a go. Instantly, the screen switch to St Pancras with a green aspect shining from the end of the northbound platform. There was nothing in the theatre box above the green because this information is not programmed into the machine, reinforcing the point that it’s not a route learning tool.
Off we went, diverging left (the points were correctly set) and into the single bore tunnel that curved, dipped and climbed to take us to Belle Isle, on the East Coast Main Line. We burst into daylight as a Class 313 crossed High Speed 1’s bridge above us. “You’re on your own now,” said Barry, “I don’t sign the East Coast.”
OK, then, I’ve travelled this line more times than I can remember but I’ve always been looking out of a side window, coffee at hand. My stop at Finsbury Park went reasonably well so we continued north past Hornsey and the building we were in – it had acquired an extra two roads because the computer model was using Thameslink’s Three Bridges depot building as a stand-in.
We rolled through a couple of tunnels and approached another station. “Oakleigh Park,” I ventured and was relieved when it’s signs displayed the same. Doors released, right-hand side and there’s a couple of youths trading punches on the platform. “I think we should go before they board,” I suggest, knowing that this option is probably not open to real drivers.
We emerge from Hadley Wood South Tunnels on the Down Slow. Two more tunnels and then we’ll be at Potters Bar. This proves to be a better stop but as I missed New Barnet entirely, it might be more luck than judgement. The brakes on a ‘700’ are good but you can’t hit the platform end at over 60mph and expect to stop.
One piece of advice I’ve heard from several real drivers is that you should stop on a rising brake. This prevents a sharp deceleration just as you stop that has people tumbling over. I suspect it holds true on a Class 700 but I found it tricky deciding just when to start easing the brake. That’s because a ‘700’ rolls so well with no brake. Releasing the brake at just 2mph saw their effect disappear so quickly we just kept moving. That’s quite some contrast to vacuum brakes which I’m told should be released well before you stop.
Barry has one more trick up his sleeve. The simulator can replicate varying degrees of black rails where autumn leaves make braking difficult. We leave Potters Bar and reach 13mph when he goes for full black, the worst railhead you could encounter.
I try the brake. Nothing but a bright white ‘sanding’ light shining from the cab desk. Pushing the power-brake handle forward into full service and there’s still nothing. Indeed, our speed has crept up to 14mph and then 15mph. We’re powerless. It’s a feeling Barry has experienced as he recounts the day he slid for miles. I’m sure he said six miles which must have been truly frightening.
Still in full service braking, I spot something in the distance. We’re on the four-track East Coast Main Line as four buffer stops hove into view. It’s the end of the line and I’m rather tickled that the simulator’s programmers have place such a definite end to their route.
We’re now at 18mph and, as we crash through the buffers, I sound the horn. There wasn’t much more I could do…
This article first appeared in RAIL 817, published on January 4 2017.