A Train Departure Indicator at Clapham Junction Station

Herein lies a sad and sorry tale.

In the mid-1980s I was part of the project team for the Brighton Barrier Line Scheme (BBLS) which was charged with installing a large flap indicator on the concourse at Brighton Station, together with visual dispay units on the platforms and around the station, a new public address system, and a new building to house the control and equipment rooms for these systems, together with a new tenancy (the W H Smith shop). This was some years before ticket barrier machines were introduced so it was not a “barrier line” in that sense and you could actually get onto the platforms fairly easily, without having to negotiate the bottleneck that is there today.

I will blog about the PA system on another occasion – it has its own somewhat heartbreaking story to tell. For now I will concentrate on the indicator system, which I believe was the first in the country to feature colour TV units (which are also known as “monitors”, a fact which, if I ever start a “Pedantry” thread, may well also feature in a future blog; until then I will refer to these units as visual display units or VDUs). 1

The system had a number of channels, including one for each platform and a “summary” display (a time-ordered list of departures). There was also a requirement for a display telling passengers what was the best train to get if they were going to major stations such as London Victoria, London Bridge and Gatwick Airport. The question was, how should such a display be labelled? After all – “Next Train” was no good because the next train to, say, London might be a slow train which a later faster train would overtake. But “Fastest Train” wouldn’t really do either – the fastest train might not be the next one – there could be a slower train before it which it will not overtake. Someone put these ideas together and came up with “Next Fastest Train” – but that was quickly thrown out, partly because it suggests “second fastest” and leaves the puzzled punter asking “well, what is the fastest train then?” and partly because, in any case, “next fastest”, even if you don’t interpret it in that way, does not really convey the meaning you want it to have.2 Then someone suggested “First Train to Arrive At” – and of course that is exactly what you want, because we are assuming we are dealing with people who are in a hurry and want to get there as quickly as possible. (And in those days there was not the complicating factor of rival train companies charging different fares). So, “First Train to Arrive At” it was, and that phrase was duly engraved on the indicator.

First Train To Arrive At

And it’s still there! When they renewed the indicator they didn’t bother to remove it.

At this point I need to make a slight detour to explain something about the way this project was run.

The project team met once a month. Together with my immediate boss, Mike Moore, I attended the meetings on behalf of the Signal & Telecommunications Engineering Department (S&T). It was our job to prepare technical drawings and specifications, invite tenders, appoint a contractor and supervise the work. The operating requirements were spelt out by the Station Manager, Peter Wood, and his boss the Area Manager, who respectively ran and oversaw everything related to the station. There was also a representative of the Regional Passenger Terminals Manager (RPTM), whose remit, as his title suggests, was everything connected with the “passenger interface” over the whole Region. Also in attendance were the architect who designed the main indicator frame and the building (BR had its own architects in those days) and the other engineering departments, civil and electrical. The project as a whole was managed by a Project Manager, who was separate from any of these departments (but usually had a civil engineering background) – it was his job to keep the project going, to timescale and within budget. (And yes, I use the male pronoun because, sadly, it was an all-male body).

It was at one of these meetings, involving all the above, that the brain-storming session that produced “First Train to Arrive At” took place. I can’t remember now who actually suggested it – in theory it was not up to the engineers or architects to make suggestions like this, since our remit was to do what the train operators asked – but it is in the nature of a meeting that anyone present can join in and suggest things.3 And I think that getting a good result like that is one in the eye for those people who decry meetings and claim that all they do is fudge; on the contrary, meetings can be creative occasionally.

After Brighton, I was involved with a similar, but larger, scheme at London Victoria; then I transferred to the maintenance side and became a Technical Support Engineer. So I cannot be sure whether our terminology was universally adopted. I have a feeling it was used again, at least at Victoria (but it’s impossible to say now, as the Victoria system has been renewed again since). The person whose job it was to determine “best practice” and apply it across the board was the RPTM, whose very able representative, John Phillips, was effectively a sort of middleman between us engineers and the train operators; sadly, and tragically, John was found dead in his office a few years later. But I am sure he will have done his best to promulgate our Good Idea.

However, in the mid-90s along came privatisation and it was “all change”. Telecomms was sold as a job lot to Racal; running the trains was franchised to the Train Operating Companies; other engineering departments were chopped up and sold off; and Railtrack had what was left. I don’t know what happened to the RPTM but it probably just ceased to exist. So, after that, it was possible for a station manager, with company directors breathing down his or her neck, to let a contract directly to a provider without going through the remnants of our department, and without having to subscribe to any sort of specification. So Best Practice went out of the window, and Cheap-And-Nasty came in. And hey presto, the wheel is reinvented, and back comes “Next Fastest Train”!

Now, it’s possible that a meeting took place before the system at Clapham Junction (pictured) was installed, and the question of what heading to put on this particular display was thoroughly discussed, and “Next Fastest Train” was agreed on. In which case I withdraw my objection on some counts, although I still think campaigners for “Plain English” might have a thing or two to say about it. But somehow I doubt that that’s what happened. And it’s kind of sad to think that, purely because of a breakdown in communication, the little tiny bit of progress we made, in that room on Brighton Station some time in the mid-1980s, was carelessly undone. When one reaches a Certain Age, one inevitably starts to think about what one’s life has been for; like the dying Leonardo, asking over and over  “tell me if anything ever was done”, one asks: Have I made a contribution? Have I done anything really original? And while I am not claiming credit for this particular piece of terminology, it was good to have been part of the process.


1 Previous to that, some stations had been provided with monochrome VDUs which were not black and white but some other combination of colours such as brown and yellow; still there were only two colours – the driving circuitry is the same, it’s just the phosphors in the tube that are different. Full colour of course requires a 3 channel RGB circuit.

2 One could always apply some sort of mathematical formula to find the optimum solution – if “fastness” and “nextness” could be given some sort of score, one could choose the train which maximises the product of these two quantities. But simple railway folk – let alone passengers – would be unlikely to find this meaningful.

3 In fact there was a tendency for people on the operating side who had been “railwaymen man and boy” to have difficulty putting themselves in the position of passengers, and as a relatively new entrant I sometimes felt able to put the passenger’s point of view more effectively. In retrospect, I suppose we should really have had a passengers’ representative on the project team, although some might not have liked that idea much.