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Working the DMUs by Arno Brooks


The Summer of 1976

The year 1976 stands out in most people’s memory as a very long, scorching hot summer. It was actually too long and too hot, but for me it produced some memorable moments.

By about August it had not rained for a very long time and the country was suffering from an acute water shortage. The railway carriage washing machines had been turned off and the trains were externally dirtier that at any in history since world war two. The DMUs on the Midland were normally in all-over dull rail blue and looked drab at the best of times. With their thick black oily exhaust and their great clouds of brake block dust our DMUs became a dense all-over matt black, windows included. Passengers cleaned windows by scraping them with coins to see where they were. The light inside the coaches was an eerie dull brown colour, it was all very strange. Because the country was tinder dry there were many lineside vegetation fires.

One afternoon whilst driving a 127 unit from Bedford to St Pancras I was stopped at Mill Hill Intermediate Block signal and warned that there was a reported lineside fire and to be careful. As I approached the place where today the RAF museum stands near Silkstream Junction I came round the bend to see a huge wall of flame like a forest fire ahead. Bushes and vegetation on both sides of the embankment were blazing with no sign of the Fire Brigade.

At that time I was 24 years old and a fairly reckless young man. I saw the great wall of fire and thought “yeah, go for it”. I accelerated the unit right through the inferno at about 60mph and came out the other side with a stupid great grin on my face. At St Pancras an old lady came to the cab and congratulated me on my enterprising driving. Today I would get the sack and probably be prosecuted as well.

During the summer of ’76 the prolonged intense heat caused people to relax their style of dress. One nice diversion was that quite a few young women dispensed with their blouses and travelled to and from work wearing only their bra on top. It was odd to see a young woman in her bra carrying a briefcase.

One of the very strangest events of my railway career happened one night during the heat wave of ’76. The Midland ran several late night trains between St Pancras and Bedford. I was driving one that left St Pancras some time around 1.00am with all stops to Bedford. At about 1.40 am, just after leaving Elstree there were several loud beeps from the Loudaphone intercom. It was the young Caribbean guard and he was in a very agitated state.

Guard “Brooksie man, you is not gonna believe dis but a young woman has got on an she isn’t wearin no clothes man”.
Me, “Yeah, you’ve been smoking the ganga again”.
Guard, “Nah, not dis evenin. Ah is telling you, she isn’t wearin nothing down below, you can see her backside an orl dat, you know man. Ah isn’t kiddin you man. You just wait an see”.

So I decided to believe him and at each station I stopped at a spot so that anyone leaving the train would have to pass by my cab to exit the station. Finally at Harpenden two young couples got out of the third coach and walked down the platform. One of the young women had long dark hair and was wearing one of those hippy style cheesecloth blouses and absolutely nothing else except sandals. My ganga smoking guard had been right. As they walked past my cab she gave me a big smile and a little wave and just said “bye-ee”. Very odd. This should not be regarded as a typical DMU driving incident.

Mill Hill Broadway

Mill Hill Broadway Station. I was the secondman on the Peak. I had just spoken to the signalman from a signal post telephone. Note the oil tail lamp on the back of the Class 127 unit. Arno Brooks.

Passengers, the good, the bad and the Germans

As you know passenger trains carry passengers. Most are fine but some stand out.

People these days moan about how everything was better years ago. During the 1970s there was one phenomenon that has happily gone out of fashion. Seat slashing. The Midland line DMUs had high backed seats and no corridors. This gave a high degree of privacy which allowed a select band of cretins to enjoy the wonderful world of seat slashing. We never saw them but they were there, quietly ruining our DMUs. It was hard enough to provide a decent service without these vermin doing their bit to ruin things. At night I would reach Bedford or Luton and walk down the train to the other cab to work the set back to London. Inside the coaches you could see seat after seat slashed to tatters and the white kapok and horsehair stuffing scattered about and hanging out everywhere. I think that if I had caught one of the seat slashers I could well have killed him. At Cricklewood Carriage Depot there were a couple of Irish ladies who would work through the night sewing up seats as best as they could. The coaches needed to go back to Derby for re-upholstering but the Irish ladies did a very good job as an interim measure. During 1975 -80 the inside of our DMUs looked truly dreadful because of the Stanley Knife Brigade.

Twenty eight years later many of those seat slashers are probably now talking about what they would like to do to today’s youth. Odd isn’t it?

Late at night there is always a plentiful supply of drunks. Most drunks are a nuisance but occasionally one is useful. It was Christmas eve, probably 1978. It was about 10.15pm and on platforms 3 and 4 at St Pancras were DMUs. Mine, on platform 3 was a semi-fast to Bedford and on platform 4 a few minutes later was an all stops to Luton. I was standing on the platform watching people board the two DMUs.

Wobbling along the platform was a well dressed business man. He was very drunk and tottering all over the place. He got into my unit. I wondered if he had got on the correct train because I did not want to arrive at Bedford with a sleeping drunk on board. They can take ages to dislodge and sort out. My plan was to get to Bedford as fast as possible. Then a quick turnaround and a fast ECS run back to Cricklewood. Then I would jump on my Yamaha motorbike and straight to a friend’s Christmas party. I did not want any drunken twits spoiling things.

I went to the man who was already dozing of in a cloud of alcohol fumes. I gently nudged him and asked where he was going. He muttered something about Mill Hill Broadway. He was on the wrong train. After a few attempts I penetrated what was left of his consciousness and finally got him onto the other unit. As I walked back to my unit I saw that he had left an unopened bottle of Johnny Walker whiskey on the seat. I took the bottle to him. I shook him awake again and gave him the bottle. He looked at me, burped loudly and said that I could have the bottle as a Christmas present and promptly fell asleep again. Nobody needs to tell me that twice. That was a nice little bonus for my party.

I am half German and speak the language fluently. If you are a BR driver there is not much cause to speak German but it does have its moments. Late one evening in 1978 I was taking a Class 127 unit from St Pancras all stops to Luton. The set was in poor shape. Only two of its four engines worked. There were no spare sets at St Pancras. Control had arranged that the train would run as far as Cricklewood where the passengers would wait on the platform. I would take the set into the sidings and a fresh set would be waiting. I would take the fresh set into Cricklewood station, pick up the passengers and continue on the journey. That was the plan.

In those days trains did not have a public address system. If you needed to tell the public anything you actually had to tell them face to face. Together, at St Pancras, the guard and I set about telling all our passengers what was happening. Finally there was one last group of well dressed middle aged people. I started telling them what was going to happen at Cricklewood. Half way through one lady said to the man next to her “Wass sagt der junger Mann?” Ah ha, Germans I thought. Without pausing I started again in fast fluent German. The look of sheer astonishment was a joy to behold. An English train driver speaking German, whatever next? They just sat there with their mouths hanging open in astonishment.

Sometimes you would not believe that passengers can be so thick. I once met some that were convinced that my pair of class 31 locos was a DMU.

It was in the summer of 1978. One Saturday I had travelled passenger to Leicester. There I prepared a pair of class 31s for an enthusiasts special. The train arrived behind a class 44. The 44 was uncoupled and I put my pair of 31s on the front. I was to take the train as far as Reading via the Midland main line, across north London on the Brent Junction – Acton line and then down the Great Western to Reading. There my 31s were uncoupled and a pair of 37s took over. I then had to take my 31s to Cricklewood. Running over the Up Relief Line I was stopped at a red signal at the end of Acton Mainline station platform. I went to the signal post telephone and as I spoke to the signalman I saw a family with two toddlers and an infant in a push chair get into the back cab of the rear loco. I walked to the rear cab, opened the door and had the following conversation.

Me. “Could you please get out, you are not allowed in here.”
Family man. “We‘re going to Paddington.”
Me. “I’m very sorry but this isn’t a passenger train.”
Family man. “Yes it is, we always catch this train.”
Me. “This is a locomotive, this isn’t for passengers.”
Family man. “Yes it is, we’ve got tickets.”
Me. “Please will you get out, this isn’t a passenger train.”
Family man. (Superb bit of logic here) “If this isn’t a passenger train why have you stopped at this station?”
Me. “OK, have it your own way. Stay in here and see if I care, but you won’t get to Paddington. I’m taking these to Cricklewood.”
Family man. Typical ******* British Railways. It’s about time that you ******** did some work for a living.”

They finally left.

A Diesel Multiple Unit but not as we know it

One day, sometime in spring of 1973, when I was still a secondman I was on a light class 47 loco returning from Hither Green. We had worked a van train from the Midland Region to Hither Green Yard and our return working had not materialised. At Acton Wells Junction on the North London Line the signalman told my driver that the line to Brent Junction was blocked because of a derailment. This meant that we could not get back to Cricklewood. My driver asked to take the loco to Old Oak Common loco depot instead. We could then catch a bus to Cricklewood. It was the quickest way to get home. We duly arrived at Old Oak Depot where we stabled the loco. We were in the midst of a gaggle of 47s and Westerns and class 50s. Not far off I saw a sorry sight. There were several rows of the old Blue Midland and Western Blue Pullmans. They had been withdrawn and were awaiting towing to a scrapyard. I went over to them and wandered through their interiors. Almost all the windows had been smashed. There were broken venetian blinds everywhere. All those lovely deep, comfortable seats were torn up, filthy dirty and damaged. The kitchen and parlour cars were wrecked. There was trash and dereliction everywhere. I saw these sets a few years earlier at St Pancras. They were the height of elegance and sophistication. What a stupid and disgraceful waste. Similarly in 1985 I saw the electric APTs in a similar state at Crewe works awaiting the scrapman. British Railways really knew how to throw money away. Today no TOC would waste resources like that. Some might mourn the passing of BR but I don’t.

Part 01
Part 02 ->
Part 03
Part 04
Part 05

This article is © Arno Brooks and may not be reproduced in any form.

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