The secret life of a train driver – Assessment

In December 1990 I found myself unemployed for the first time in my life after being made redundant by British Telecom. I’d worked at BT for 18 months and did not qualify for redundancy money because I had not worked for the company for longer than two years. My manager at the time, Terry, suggested I applied for the railway because they were looking to employ a lot of new staff. I duly applied for a job and was invited to an assessment day at London Bridge Station.

Looking back going for the assessment at London Bridge was quite significant not only because the job would turn out to be a major part of my life but because I was born in Guy’s Hospital which is next door to London Bridge Station itself. So in effect I was having the assessment in the area where I was born and, much later on after getting the job, would be ‘born’ into adulthood. This job was a major defining moment of my life though the significance of this was lost on me at the time.

So, one cold December morning I arrived at London Bridge Station and directed to a medium sized Portacabin (which had been there for many years) on the station concourse between two platforms. I sat in the waiting room with about 60 other people and during the course of the next 9 hours or so we’d be subjected to numerous tests and interviews to see if we were the right person for the job. Had I have go through that type of rigorous assessment today I’d probably be nervous as hell but being just a few months out of my teenage years I was oblivious to the whole situation.

The assessors came out to greet us and we were promptly told: Around 400 people apply for every Trainee Train Driver’s vacancy. Only one – 0.25% – will succeed.

We all went into the assessment rooms in groups of 5-10 (depending on the assessment) and afterwards we’d wait for the results as a whole. Then came the first shock when people were sent home. It then felt kinda real but not something that made me feel nervous just a realisation that we were being assessed on a test by test basis and not over all.

The tests at the beginning were pretty standard, pretty basic and from my point of view incredibly easy! The first group of tests involved spelling, simple maths and then geography. So I was kind of gob smacked when some people failed!

Later on the tests became a little more unusual. For example we a page full of dots in groups of 2, 3 and 4 and we had to circle one ones in groups of 3. These were small dots on a page and not large dots! Another test was being shown a picture for ½ a second and then answer a series of questions about what we saw. Then we had the mandatory drink and drugs test then an individual interview with a manager before having a series of personality tests.

The time was now approaching 16.00 and we were down from 60 people to about 18. The assessor came our of his office and divided us up in to groups for the final test and I was in the last group.

There were 4 groups of 4 and I was in a group of two… Or a pair if you prefer. We had no idea what the test involved but we saw the other coming out and one by one get told they had failed. Sure there were one or two who passed and were told they had been hired but the trend was very much towards failure.

Going in to the final test it was the first time that people were being sent home before everyone had taken the assessment. Whereas before we had no idea how everyone else got on before we took the test going in to the final test we knew exactly how hard it was going to be because of the 16 people who took the test before us only 3 passed!

The time came for myself and the other guy in my group, an Indian guy called Tony who was my age to go and take our places in the room. You might think it is strange that 22 years later I can remember the name of the guy who took the final assessment with me? I did not know his name at the time but he would later join the railway on the same day as me and we’d no only train to be a guard together, train to be a driver together but we’d be at the same depot for 11 years together.

So, we entered the room and saw 4 desks all laid out with the same console of lights and buttons on each with a headset and floor peddles. I remember thinking “what the **** is this?” as I’d never seen anything like it before. I eventually managed to pick a seat, put on my headset and get comfortable.

The assessor entered the room and explained that in front of us were a series of lights, buttons and peddles. When the lights lit up we’d have to press them. When a sound played on one ear we’d have to press the corresponding button and when one of 2 specific sounds played we’d have to press the peddles on the floor with our feet. The response time, the time between the indication and us responding would be measured by way of testing our reflexes. The assessment time would be 15 minutes.

Bugger! My mind was racing at this point. After eight and a half hours without a lunch break of mental assessments we’d be tested on our reflexes and stamina. Great!

The test began, slowly at first to get us accustomed to what was going on and then after a minute it was up to full speed. I felt I was doing pretty well until Tony, the other guy, stated complaining that he was making mistakes and had lost where he was. I could hear he was not hitting buttons very often and was just swearing so I told him to take a deep breath and start again with the first light he saw. He did and thankfully shut up for a minute or two until he started complaining again that it was too difficult.

After 15 gruelling minutes the test ended. It was a very surreal moment because the madness, chaos and mayhem that was before me stopped suddenly. For a few moments I was sitting there sitting there still fully alert waiting for a light to light up. Even when the assessor returned to the room was was still looking for signs that one with sneakily alight but I was assured the test really had ended.

Tony and I exited the room in a shell shocked state and it wasn’t long before the adrenaline rush focused me into being a little annoyed at Tony for sabotaging my chances at succeeding in the test. I was convinced I had failed because of his constant moaning and complaining. I didn’t say anything to Tony, I just enquired as to why he couldn’t have kept quiet and let me get on with what I was doing.

Before Tony had a chance to answer the assessor returned to the room. Mentally I had already left the Portacabin and was on my way home. It was of little comfort to me that if I had no passed then Tony definitely couldn’t have passed but the assessor didn’t mess around and duly told us we’d both passed and that we’d get letters sent home to us regarding our start dates and what depot we’d be assigned to.

Tony and I left together. He lived quite near to me but was taking an overground train whereas I lived near the underground station so we were going our separate ways. Tony thanked me for helping him through the test and I said it was nothing and could see the funny side to what had happened.

By this time it was past 17.00, we’d arrived at 08.00 and I was actually mentally exhausted and needed to be on my own. We shook hands and wished each other luck with our career little knowing we’d be colleagues at the same depot.