The Pitsea Loop
“I ain’t doin’ the Pitsea loop again. Four times up an’ dahn the line in ‘alf a day. I’ll tell Roj to get stuffed if he makes me do anova’ before the June is up.”
That’s Stephen. Sometimes I wonder why he ever became a train driver. Tedium is our biggest challenge – they tell us that right from the start. Tedium and alertness. I stirred my shitey instant coffee that’d just dropped down from the vending machine in the briefing room at Fenchurch Street station. It was 6.10am. The coffee was scalding hot, so much so that I couldn’t hold the thin plastic cup. The sort of cup you pull out those cylinders next to a watercooler, you know? In a couple of minutes, it will have gone from scalding to tepid. I clicked in a sweetener.
“Neil, are you wiv’ me, mate?” I looked over. “Don’t you fink we should tell to Roj to do one?”
“Ah, I don’t mind the Pitsea loop, mate”, I said flinchingly, aware that indifference tends to rile Stephen when he’s in one of these mood. “I know it’s long, but I like watching the tide come in and out over the marshes by the castle. There’s also that high speed stretch of rail along by the sea wall.”
Steve grunted, dropping a clipboard of rota changes noisily down on the Formica work surface.
“Are you a member of the union?” As expected, Steve’s voice turned heavy. He was revving up; his porky little head turned over his shoulder to look at me as he lifted a Network Rail high-vis jacket off a peg the little, two mini bloodshot eyes locked into mine.
“Err, I was but I think it lapsed. Need to renew.” I shuffled on my chair, touching the too-thin plastic coffee cup with my knee. A little drop sloshed over onto the back of my hand – it was still at the scorching hot stage.
“Why the fuck aren’t you signed up, you dick ‘ead. Are you with them or us? Have you seen the key to Train UP298?”
“Yeah here you go, mate”. The quicker I could get him out now the better. His shoulders had arched, and the eyes were now squeezed down into little almonds of fury. Steve was a Mile End boy, born of a long line of train drivers. Rumour has it his dad hung out with the Krays at Limehouse basin; his uncle was a doorman at Esmeralda’s Barn, the night old Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie was done in.
The door slammed as he headed for the platform. In in the briefing room, I exhaled loudly and rubbed my legs feeling the tension dissipate along my fingers. The fluorescent tube light whistled overhead, casting a nauseatingly yellow glow across a pin-board of staff notices. Office Summer Night Out – BBQ on Hackney Downs; then Bowling at Finsbury Park; a Macmillan’s charity fundraiser concealed cruelly under a torn-out page 3 model; a small business card-sized advert for a local Indian takeaway near Aldgate. And underneath them all, and the easiest to miss, a green and white Samaritans flyer bearing an image of a stubbly man with hollowed out eyes, pictured beneath the phrase – Spot The Warning Signs. Approach Platform End With Care. A few minutes later, I heard Steve’s train start, the double-clunk of the wheel sets running over a knot of rail directly above the briefing room, sending little concentric ripples through my coffee. Then, silence again. Just me in the empty station. I looked at my watch. 06.25. Ten minutes to go. I took a sip of the coffee… it’d become lukewarm.
The sun was glittering through the empty top floor offices of the Canary Wharf tower as I nosed my train out of the long, unlit flat platform and out towards the Down mainline. Muse was playing through my earphones. At this time of the morning, there aren’t any other rail staff to see and report you for this most serious and delightful of conduct infringements. The signals and hedgerows licked passed my windscreen to the thunderous bass of Supermassive Blackhole, as I edged up towards 90mph, the closed stations jetting past in a blur. It’d be another 4 hours before my train picked up any passengers at the other end of the line before heading back into town. An easy shift… no door-jumpers, no packed carriages, no suspect items left in overhead lockers that meant waiting for the British Transport Police to haul their arses over from Bow. And definitely no emergency alarms being pulled by daft people in the lavs and fat cats giving me the finger as they passed. Against the rush hour it’s always an easy ride.
It was 09.30 by the time I’d hit the coast and the sun already felt hot through the visor. These new trains didn’t have windows, only below-par air conditioning that breathed through crud-clogged vents by your feet. Heading east on a summer morning, a driver felt the sheer brunt of the sun’s fierce ultra-violet rays, beating down through the East Anglian sky, searing right into the back of his retinas. Worse, you can’t see the signals. As I pulled down the sun blind, I’d already missed the aspect of one. I think it was a double-yellow, but I couldn’t tell. I eased off the throttle.
Rounding the corner by the seawall at Pitsea, I’d reached my favourite part of the line: the long straight right the way through to the terminus, parallel to the patches of wading birds and mudflats which glistened silver on clear mornings. No matter what time of the year you passed, it always looked magical; something about it was otherworldly; moon-like, and mysterious. I shuffled my music and upped the volume as I pushed the throttle full forward once again. As I did, I noticed a WattsApp notification from Sarah peek briefly from the top of the phone’s screen. I just caught the preview line: Rob off school been up all night with… I placed my rucksack on the throttle lever to hold it down onto the full notch while I swiped my phone to unlock, my coffee flask clamped between my thighs. . . high temperature and he said his tummy really hurts. Worried it might be appendicitis like Jane’s kid had so we’re going to the hospital now. Call me.
I blobbed some text back onto the screen in reply. My thumbs shook with the train’s jostling. Will-call-in-a-sec-nearly-at-end-of-li…
It was then I saw out the corner of my eye. Someone on the lineside. Right there. Either about to jump, or with their leg already across the left rail. Shit! I pressed the large red emergency stop plunger. Nothing happened. Come on you bastard! I yelled punching down the plunger with the side of my fist, until it gave way with a hiss of air. Shit, shit, shit. A chime sounded, and the brakes took hold. My body pulled sluggishly forward with the lame deceleration. 80mph… 75mph… 68mph Come on! 50mph. With a lurch, the car finally stopped to the chorus of several chimes. I watched, my head buried under my arm, as the needle came to rest of the little stopper peg at “0”. My heart felt unnaturally loud, and I could hear its frantic pulses on my breath which seemed doubly loud in the eerie silence. Several seconds passed. I felt my hands gradually flop down to my lap, while my right knee remained juddering up and down with pent-up terror. The sun felt hot on my wrist as it continued to shield my burrowed head which remained fixed on the glowing milometer. There was only one thing on my mind. One thought. Or perhaps an image. It repeated again and again and again. It was of the bottom left corner of the train windscreen.