Trains through Harpenden
The rail network is vital to the population of Harpenden: the daily commute to London, access to theatres, music, museums, shopping, royal parks, fun school holiday trips and more. We now have connections to airports, main line trains in all directions and Eurostar trains for the continent. Bill Davies was a train driver during a period of huge changes to the railway system via modernisation, expansion and privatisation. He gave us the drivers’ view, peppered with anecdotes.
A train driver’s story
Bill wanted to be an engine driver since the day his mother took him to see locomotives at a tender age. His railway career began in September1964 aged 16, when he started as a Steam Engine Cleaner at Toton Engine Shed in the Nottingham area. One day, a loco driver with a cargo of coal destined for Wellingborough was short of a fireman, so he invited Bill onto the footplate. The enthusiastic lad jumped at the opportunity. “Just shovel the coal in there,” he said. Bill stopped after about 6 shovel loads. “No lad, you shovel until I tell you to stop.” He didn’t stop until they reached Melton Mowbray. As well as shovelling, the fireman was supposed to break down big lump coal into smaller pieces the size of oranges. Bill became a fireman – but ‘The Age of Steam’ finished in 1968.
When Bill was promoted to Driver he worked diesel locos first from Kings Cross (from 1970) and then from Charing Cross (from 1974). In 1978 he married and settled in Bedford, “To make commuting to work easier,” he said, “and to be sure of a seat.” He drove both goods as well as passenger trains. The heavy loads included, at various times; coal (to the cement works in Kent), cement from the Kent works and aggregates (both to Leicester and Derby), bricks (to Leicester) aviation fuel, oil (to the terminal at Dunstable) and cars sporadically (from Vauxhall works at Luton). Eventually he went over to passenger trains completely. During nearly 30 years of driving through Harpenden the rail network was changing around him, and he was part of this history.
Electrification of the Bedpan Line (the route between Bedford and St Pancras) started soon after he moved to Bedford. In May 1978, the hole for the first overhead gantry was dug. Electrification brought advantages but new problems for drivers as well as commuters. Many were caused by bad weather; ice on cables, storms bringing them down, collapse of gantries, and ‘the wrong kind of snow’ – when fine dry snow blew into the motors of the new electric trains. Just getting to work for the drivers was difficult.
Harpenden Station had a bad reputation for leaves on the line. At times, a High Speed Train (HST) would whoosh through on the fast line stirring up fallen leaves and blowing them onto the track. One night, Bill’s commuter train slid right through the station and had to back up. This eventually resulted in modifications to the disc brakes to prevent recurrence. Much of the leaf problem was due to trees growing too close to the line, especially north of Harpenden.
In May 1988 the Snow Hill tunnel between Farringdon and Blackfriars was re-opened. It cost £45million (largely funded by the GLC), which included 60 dual-voltage new trains. This enabled the opening of Kings Cross Thameslink station and a direct service from Bedford to Brighton. Changes to the second route via Sutton were made around 1994.
Kings Cross Thameslink Station was closed on 8th December 2007. Longer platforms under St Pancras International Station had been constructed to accommodate new 12-carriage trains: St Pancras Thameslink was born. By then, Bill had completed 43 years of service. He had been a Driver Trainer and a Driver Manager during his last few working years, until retiring in 2007.
Huge improvements to the railway have taken place since his retirement, especially to the big stations in the capital: London Bridge and Farringdon in particular. London Cross Rail is still in progress, with hopes for opening ‘The Elizabeth Line’ by June 2022. Plans for a new rail link from Luton Parkway station to inside Luton Airport have not been realised. Its future is uncertain now, like many other projects.
Bill recommends a visit the York Railway Museum where the first DOO loco is stored. In March 1983, he had been the driver of that first Driver Only Opens train to go into operation. He was met by the paparazzi and interviewed by Peter Parker (journalist) – a great memory, amongst many others!
This report was first published in Newsletter 146, April 2022