Former train driver Ian Twells reflects on life in the cab at launch of new class 717s
PUBLISHED: 13:05 05 April 2019
Britain’s oldest electric mainline trains last week began to vanish from the Northern City Line – and one retired driver is reflecting on four decades in the cab.
During Ian Twells’ time with British Rail, he drove the trains out of King’s Cross and Finsbury Park, passing through Hornsey and Alexandra Palace, on a daily basis.
Last week, as the new class 717s began to take over from the 313s –which date back to the mid-1970s – he caught up with the Ham&High.
It was a family affair for Ian, who now lives in Luton.
“My father was a signalman,” he said. “Most young men followed their fathers into a profession, but you had to be 18 to go into ‘a box’.”
“I left school at 15, and went to become a lamp man on the platform, and to make sure the signal lamps didn’t go out.”
In 1962, he then became a fireman in the last days of steam engines on the railways. He briefly moved down to Hornsey engine depot a year later, before being based at King’s Cross.
In his decades as a driver, he drove both the 313s, currently the oldest electric trains still on mainland Britain, and the “deltic” Class 55 diesel locomotives, known as the “workhorses” of the rails.
He spent most of his career in London, driving engines on the Northern City Line and Great Northern Route, which now runs from Moorgate to Hertford North, but at one point called at King’s Cross. Thameslink services call along part of the route, before continuing to New Southgate.
Looking back, he said King’s Cross was a hive of activity, and “unrecognisable” from today – and it wasn’t exactly glamorous in the glory years of steam.
“It wasn’t a pleasant atmosphere,” he said. “You had the steam, and the smoke.
“I was reminded of it when I was looking after the Hogwarts Express for the first film a few years ago.
“I was on the footplate for 13 hours. At the end of the day, it started to rain.
“When we were running the engine around [moving the locomotive from the front of the train to the back], I realised I was filthy dirty.
“I thought: ‘Yes! This is how it used to be.”
They weren’t the only changes. Dressed in a shirt and tie on the platform at Finsbury Park, Ian points out the former location of two engine sheds that have since been demolished.
When he first started working on the rails, King’s Cross Top Shed was also still open, housing steam locomotives.
He recalls drivers’ unhappiness at being told to wear high-vis jackets rather than the overalls they were used to.
Speaking to us on board the outgoing class 313 heading north from Finsbury Park to its final destination in Hertford North, Ian said the railway was “like a family”.
“Everyone would look out for everyone else,” he explained.
“I’ve got a few friends from my time on the railway, and when we go away we all call ourselves the ‘railway children’.
“We used to run Santa specials for our children every year, and would decorate the 313 and used to go to the Shaw Theatre and come back to King’s Cross where we’d take them to Gordon Hill Club for a party.”
One of the honours he had on the railway was driving the British Royal Train to Durham, which meant they had to change a few of their usual tactics.
“Something we used to do is to put detonators on the line to warn engines behind us that there was a problem or speed restrictions,” he said. Detonators are small explosives that are strapped to the track and explode when a train passes over them.
But with Her Majesty on board, they were told not to use them. “They didn’t want to wake her,” Ian told us. “There was police all over – every station or level crossing we passed; on the train. It was a great privilege.”
The former driver retired from the railways 13 years ago, before spending some time working as an engineer.
Despite at first saying he hasn’t missed life in a cab or on the footplate, he changed his mind after getting back into the cab on his way up to Hertford.
“I thought I would when I retired, but I didn’t,” he said. “Because I left at 61 and kept busy and did something completely different, I didn’t.
“But getting out of the cab just now, I really enjoyed it. It’s all the same stuff with a few minor changes.
“I’d do it all again tomorrow. I had a wonderful career as a driver, and I’m so grateful that I spent my life doing something I wanted to do.”