Route Learning

Adapted from a thread of tweets in 2019 by Chris the Driver (South Western Railway)

I’ve been asked a number of times what route learning constitutes – surely you just follow the tracks? It is, however, more intricate than that, so I created a thread to explain what "knowing your roads" means to a driver. As an example, I’m using my learning go the Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour, probably one of the most complex routes that a Guildford driver will have to learn.

Figure 1: My notes listing the trains I need to use to cover the days route learning. Photo: Chris Jones.

A driver must develop in-depth knowledge of speeds, signals (including which signal boxes control them), stations (where they are, where you stop each length of train on them), curvature and gradient of track, what points take you where and where is your “point of no return”, where you can attach and detach parts of the train, risk areas (perhaps where low adhesion can be a particular problem), level crossings, foot crossings, junction names and where they go, tunnels, yards, sidings and many other things.

Figure 2: A route map for Haslemere with my notes on it - where stop marks are, identified hazards, shut off and braking points etc. Photo: Chris Jones

Taking speeds, for example, a standard Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour via Woking and Guildford would include over 40 changes of permissible speed (going the opposite direction, it is nearer 50!). When changing speed, you must be at the speed on the board when the front of the train passes the board when braking and can accelerate to the speed on the board when the BACK of the train passes the board when speeding up – that takes judgment. And that is just a standard journey. There can be times when you are routed into an unusual platform at Woking or Guildford, for example. At Woking, you can go in either direction on platforms 1, 2, 4 and 5 and at Guildford on platforms 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8. If I am routed to an unusual platform, I need to know the point-specific speeds for both the route into the platform and back out again.

During times of disruption, we can be routed over the “Windsor side” on approach to and/or departure from Waterloo. Indeed, you can get to anywhere on the SWR network from any platform at Waterloo, including the International Terminal platforms. If, for example, I am going down the Windsor side on a southbound service, I know that my last crossing point back to the Main Line is just south of Queenstown Road, so I have to be prepared for this just in case I am given a signal that would take me straight on there. Our Network Rail Signallers are truly world class but mistakes can occasionally be made so I need to be on the ball just in case.

Figure 3: Guildford station (Platform 4) illustrating what the stop marks look like with 3-4 in the foreground, then 5-6 and, in the distance, 8, 10 and 12. Photo: Chris Jones.

On the approach to stations, I need to know where they are and where I need to start braking in order to stop smoothly at the right point on the platform. Taking Liphook for example, when approaching from Haslemere, I can be travelling at around 80mph and I will need to start my braking before I can even see the station. We look for sighting points to help us – in the case of Liphook, a particular bridge over the railway. Ideal sighting points should be easily recognisable and extremely unlikely to change – you could choose a house which always has a light on but what if the bulb blows? A bridge over the railway is highly unlikely to change or disappear and can be seen clearly. Other examples are particular signals, speed boards, electrical boxes by the side of the rails, mileage boards, even points where the conductor rail changes from one side of the train to the other – all of these are fixed, recognisable points which should always be there.

We also have to be aware of gradients (going southbound into Haslemere is considerably downhill, so more braking is required), rail conditions (if it has been raining, low adhesion can be a problem) and length of the train (a 12-coach train brakes with more force than a 4-coach train). Knowing all of this enables a driver to bring a train smoothly to a stand in the right place on the platform.

With signals, there are different formats. The most common are 4-aspect and 3-aspect. 4-aspect signalling goes Red (stop here), single Yellow (next one is Red), double Yellow (next one is single Yellow) and Green (next signal shows a proceed aspect – either Green or double Yellow). 3-aspect is similar but does away with the double Yellow option. Sections can vary in length – on the approach to Waterloo, they can be as close as 300yards, around Haslemere, they are a mile and a quarter apart – so you need to take this into account.

When approaching a set of points where you will diverge from the main line (for example, going from Surbiton to Hinchley Wood), the signal taking you across the points will be Red as you approach it then, when you are in the section, assuming all is clear the other side, the signal will clear and you move across the points towards your next stop. This is called ‘Approach Control’ and it makes sure the driver has reduced speed for the move over the crossover. 

Although we all know that it exists, it is worth mentioning that drivers are taught that it doesn’t and we should drive to the signal we see, not what we think it will do. If it is currently red, we have to assume that it will stay that way until it clears. 

A driver needs to be able to read the signals ahead of time so, in this example, a Red at Hampton Court Junction (where you turn left for Hinchley Wood) would mean that you have a double Yellow at the end of the platform at Surbiton. If you are looking at a Green at Surbiton, you haven’t been given the right route for turning left so you’ll need to contact the Signaller to let him know this. Of course, 99.99% of the time, you will be looking at a double yellow but you have to be prepared in advance.

Hopefully, this gives an insight into Route Learning and what it means for a Driver and, crucially, why it takes time to achieve. Ultimately, the goal is to know a route sufficiently that you can drive it safely in the light, dark, rain, snow or fog or anything in between!

© The Railway Technical Website 2019