Travelling in the last carriage on a southbound Northern Line train between East Finchley and Camden Town before the year 2000, the observant passenger might have noticed the Guard sipping tea from an enamel cup. Nowadays the guard is all but forgotten and those of you who have travelled on the Docklands Light Railway can probably guess that the drivers’ days are numbered too.

The guard’s function was mainly to open and close the doors at stations and give the signal to the driver (known as a Motorman) to proceed. I worked on the Northern line between 1977 and 1981, starting as a guard and qualifying as a Guard Motorman in 1980 (a Guard Motorman being the in-between stage on one’s way to becoming a full-time driver).

At that time the Northern line was known as the ‘misery line’, quite rightly so, as the service was plagued by staff absenteeism and frequent equipment failure. Problems were often compounded by the complicated nature of the line’s layout, especially at Camden Town where the two branches from Edgeware and High Barnet converge and then diverge to either the Charing Cross or City Branches. No modern tube line would be designed like this – have a look at the Victoria Line (opened in 1968) which has no branches or junctions and was One Man Operated (known as O.M.O in the trade) from its inception. The absence of passenger toilets on the system meant that late night boozers coming home from the pubs often used the platform ends or cross passages to relieve themselves so this added to the general fug which was counteracted (and compounded) by an evil-looking green powder which was sprinkled liberally in problem areas. Train crews also urinated in the tunnels or underground sidings and there were even a few instances of persons unknown defecating in the Tooting Broadway siding. As if that wasn’t bad enough there was found to be a section of tunnel between Golders Green and Hampstead which was lined with blue asbestos.

Camden Town was also one of the locations on the line where train crews would break for meals (or a P.N.R. – Physical Needs Relief) and once the service started to get out of sync the situation often arose where a crew due to come off for a meal break would find no relief crew waiting for them (either because they hadn‘t finished their meal break or because they were delayed on another train). Most of the staff had a pretty bloody-minded attitude to the job and we worked to rule all the time secure in the knowledge that the unions would protect us if the need arose. Given the above, the word ‘misery’ seems a fair adjective to use.

New recruits to London Transport (as it was known then) had to undergo a period of training at the White City School. There we sat in classrooms, kitted out in brand new uniforms that felt like they were manufactured from cardboard for East German border guards and learned about train equipment, signalling and emergency procedures (smoking was allowed in class!). First though, we had to watch an old black and white film called Rail Crash, presumably to give us the idea of what shouldn’t happen on a railway. In fact London Transport had one of the best safety records of any railway in the world up until the Moorgate crash in 1975. In the twenty-five years prior to that there had been one serious collision in Stratford (1953) where a train had run into the back of another in a tunnel resulting in the deaths of twelve people.

Once through the classroom stage, I (and my fellow newbies) were itching to get out and participate in what we had been lead to believe was a glorious undertaking with strict adherence to all aspects of rules, regs and time-keeping. (In fact, just about the only place on the whole LT network that had strict time-keeping enforced was the School). So with a head full of ominous and highly technical sounding jargon like Dead Man’s Handle, Tripcock Isolating Cock (TIC) and Drivers Brake Valve Isolating Cock (DBVIC) I reported for duty at some ungodly hour of the morning at a depot on the Central line where I was to finally get my hands on a train.

A guard’s job included taking over the controls of a train in an emergency and believe it or not the practice at the time was to learn to drive on a train in passenger service, despite the existence of simulators (you can try one in the London Transport Museum). On entering the cab of my appointed train the driver stepped away from the controls and told me to take over, he then gave me verbal instructions as to what to do. The chief skill involved in driving a train is in judging the braking and given that there is a trip system that prevents trains passing red signals this system of learning to drive is not as dodgy as it sounds. The passengers did get a rough ride though as a common mistake made by learners is ‘dropping the dead-man’ i.e. letting go of the Dead Man’s Handle which results in instant emergency braking and a loud noise of compressed air escaping. Some Dead Man’s Handles (I never heard the expression in the plural using Men’s) had a particularly fierce spring so were quite hard to hold down.

At the other end of the train the guard’s position was inside the last carriage (on some lines in the cab) and consisted of two panels, one either side of the car. Learning the guard’s job was also done on a train in passenger service and consisted of opening and closing the passenger doors, giving the signal to the driver to proceed and watching the train out of the station. Once the guard’s key had been inserted in the panel the controls would become live and enable the guard’s door to be operated independently of the rest of the train doors. The guard would open his or her door first when the last car entered the station and after checking that the train was fully in the station would then open the passenger doors by depressing two buttons simultaneously. After passengers had detrained and entrained the doors would be closed and the signal given to the driver to proceed (one ring on a bell operated by a button on the panel). As the train left the station the guard would keep an eye out for any untoward activity on the platform and close the guard’s door making sure that his or head was in the carriage before the train reached the end of the platform.

Tea can

Eventually a guard would be teamed up with a regular driver in one of the depots serving the line that he or she was working on. It was advisable to live near one’s depot as the first shift started at 05:19, the latest morning start time being 07:43. There were also shifts that started throughout the afternoon, a few night shifts and some ‘split’ shifts. Split shifts involved coming to work twice in one day to work in peak hours. Night shift crews ran the last trains at night, late staff trains, early staff trains and the first trains in the mornings. We also had ‘spare’ crews whose function was to be there in case of staff absenteeism. Night spare was a good shift – come to work, book on, if everybody shows up for work either bed down for the night in the mess-room or go home and come back in the morning to book off. I was lucky enough to end up crewed with a driver with whom I shared some interests and we spent many hours at night listening to jazz, reading and drinking Darjeeling tea. We were probably the only crew who had string on our tea-bags and as far as I know there was only one bloke on the whole of the Northern Line who drank coffee made in a cafetiere. Every mess-room had a hot water urn and most guards and drivers owned a white enamel tea can, the lid of which served as a cup. Other mess-room activities included playing cards, snooker at a couple of the depots, and I once saw a driver making a clock-surround from clothes-pegs.

There was also a lot of time to kill whilst running the service given that most of the guard’s time was spent not opening and closing doors. I read newspapers and did crosswords, eventually graduating to the Times via the Sun, Evening News or Standard, Telegraph and Guardian. I also played chess with one driver and games would start at the beginning of the shift with moves being made when we saw each other – either at the end of the line, in which case one had plenty of time for deliberation during the journey there – or at meal breaks. I am convinced that I learned more in four years of reading newspapers and doing crosswords than I had in the whole of my school career. Other times I just sat and stared at and re-read endlessly the adverts above me and even perfected the art of dozing off between stations to catch up on missed sleep. To this day I cannot sleep on a tube train without waking up every time it stops.

Guard's panel

There were quite a few ‘characters’ at my depot (East Finchley), including a guard whose nickname was ‘Killer’, so-called because he had been involved in a passenger fatality in the Kennington Loop. The Kennington Loop was a section of track south of Kennington on the Charing Cross branch where trains would run empty southbound into the loop after detraining and emerge on the northbound platform. Killer was a diminutive Asian man who spoke unintelligible English and apparently a lack of communication between him and the driver over the train intercom had had something to do with the accident. This wasn’t surprising as the intercoms on the 1938 trains were almost useless. The guard’s panel had a small speaker and microphone with button next to it, the technique for using the apparatus being to press the button and shout into the microphone. At the other end of the train the driver would hear a strangled squawk from his speaker if he was lucky and using the same procedure as the guard, would shout back. The guard meanwhile in anticipation of a reply would have his ear pressed hard against the speaker grill – the whole procedure being akin to communicating with deaf relatives at Christmas. Killer was crewed with a huge taciturn West-Indian driver, who was mainly interested in playing cards, or sometimes with a very overweight moustachioed racist who drove like a maniac and arrived at junctions minutes early. This meant that the train would be held to time by the signalman. Passengers on his trains had all the fun of the demented fairground followed by seemingly interminable tedium.

Only two of the train staff at my depot wore full uniform, i.e. including hat, tie and matching jacket and trousers and most didn’t bother to carry all the equipment that was required i.e. timetables, traffic circular, note-book, lost property labels etc. Nearly everyone carried a hand-lamp though, although I don’t remember ever using mine or being aware of anyone else using theirs. Drivers carried a phone which could be connected to wires in the tunnel to speak to the line controller in an emergency. On finding lost property the guard was required to attach a label to it with details of where and when found, and hand it in at a terminal station at the next convenient opportunity. I never found anything of interest except an empty suitcase (quite a big deal at the time because of the IRA activity in London), and of course umbrellas. Quite a few of the train crews had snazzy umbrellas which they had found and kept. The rest ended up at the Lost Property Office in Baker Street which was run by a man rejoicing in the nickname of ‘Mr Brolly’. When he retired he walked out of the building under an umbrella guard of honour.

Then there were the suicides, sometimes referred to as ‘a person under a train’ in official passenger announcements or ‘one under’ by the staff. Deep tunnel stations have a trench in the centre of the track known as the ‘Suicide Pit’ and if you fall into the pit you will survive a train passing over you (these were installed during the depression in the 1930s). Apart from the risk of being mangled by a train there is a hefty current of 640 Volts D.C running through the positive rail which in stations is always furthest from the platform. I once saw a woman who had crossed the track at East Finchley, lie down across the running rail and positive rail and electrocute herself. My chief memory of that incident is of the smell of burnt hair. We often stepped on the rails whilst walking to the depot to prepare a train for service, not that we were supposed to of course. Some drivers at my depot had had as many as three suicides and I was lucky to avoid a suicide myself when driving, as the train behind me was chosen instead. This was at Waterloo going north, where trains enter the platform at about 30 mph. It doesn’t sound fast but even with full braking it would take more than half a platform length to stop. Jumping in front of a tube train is not a guaranteed way of killing yourself, surprisingly it is only about 50% effective and often results in horrific injuries instead. There are up to 100 such incidents every year on the network – many drivers have been severely traumatised by them and unable to drive again.

So how does a guard on a train in service happen to have a hot cup of tea? At East Finchley going south, the driver’s cab is right next to the stairs to the mess room so after stopping and securing the train, the driver runs up the stairs with a tea can, fills it and runs back down. This takes less than a minute. The driver pours a cup of tea and stops short at the next station (Highgate), leaving the tea can at the guard’s end of the platform before pulling fully into the station. After opening the doors the guard alights and picks up the can from the platform. A cup of tea and a newspaper help to pass the time, the only other entertainment being trying to trap double-bassists and their instruments in the doors.

Follow this link for an account of the last 1959 Tube Stock Train to run on the Northern Line: District Dave’s website is very good too: