by Rick Johansen

I’d like to think that in many ways, I’m relatively normal, whatever normal is. I like normal things like music, books, beer, football, you know, the sort of things that other folk like. Maybe not the same music, books, beer, football that you like but I hope you will agree that these are mainstream interests. One of the things I enjoy hugely is watching the railway track points change.

Essentially, the points enable trains to move from one track to another and that’s it. Once the points have changed, the trains do what trains do. To most people, I suspect, this is as uninteresting as it gets. To me, it’s always been a bit of an obsession.

Today, on the cusp of old age and death, I still find myself watching the points change. I travel to two or three vantage points, usually railway stations, to watch the trains and, more importantly, the changing of the points.

Not far from us is the small hamlet of Pilning, which has a station that has a grand total of two stopping trains a week, both on a Saturday. Looking west and down a steep gradient from the only accessible platform is the Severn Tunnel. You can’t see it properly from the station but you can see the headlights of an oncoming train long before it exits the tunnel. Trains sweep up from the tunnel and rush down the slope from the Patchway tunnels, which you also can’t see from Pilning. I go here several times a week just to watch the trains go by. Sometimes, I get lucky and see the points change.

Because this is the main line between South Wales and London, the fast trains dominate the routing. But looking west, there is a slow line, which merges onto the fast line at the end of the platform. Here are the set of points I am there to see in action.

If I time things properly, a freight train will be waiting up time on the slow line, a diesel locomotive, inevitably a Class 66, heading a long rake of wagons, its engines smoking quietly, emitting that familiar ‘boggler-boggler’ sound. A high speed Hitachi express will hurtle by on its way to London, followed a few minutes later by a rattler, a sprinter-type train. Then maybe another express. Then, after a period of relative silence, the sound of whizzing and whirring occurs and there, before my very eyes, the points change. The freight train is on its way.

It takes a few minutes, but eventually the diesel roars into action, sending up clouds of black smoke and slowly but surely the whole train comes to life. Up the gradient it comes until it reaches the points when it rattles and clatters onto the main line, the driver leaning out of his window on the left side of the diesel engine, looking back, presumably to ensure his precious cargo is still attached. Then, he puts the power on and this seemingly endless train, with its wheels screeching and screaming on the bend, roars up the embankment.

I am slightly, but only slightly, tempted to leap on one of the low loader trucks, just to see what it’s like. Reality soon takes over. I have to watch the points change back again. The train out of sight now, I am drawn to the points. Then, click click whirr and they are set for the next passenger trains. Once I’ve seen it – and I am not usually lucky enough to be there when it happens – it’s time for me to go. There will be umpteen more trains to watch, but the big excitement is over. Big excitement, indeed.

This obsession – and I used the word inadvisedly – began when I was a small child on the streets of Rotterdam, watching the trams switching from one track to another. My mum would deposit me in a safe viewing space while she bought a few bits and bobs in the shop and I would the trams go by and, just as importantly, the points changing. I had numerous viewing places across Rotterdam and I never got bored.

Patchway Station, much nearer to us than Pilning, gives me more points-changing viewing opportunities because here the tracks converge. There can be numerous changes within a few minutes. It is weirdly satisfying to the extent that once I have seen the points change, I can relax. Do you know what I mean? Of course you don’t.

When I thought about this, it occurred to me that whenever I boarded and left a train, I always checked if there were points nearby and if there were, I would have to watch them change. “Just hang on a sec while I watch the points change,” is and was a catchphrase of mine.

I have thought about venturing onto Youtube and checking out points-changing videos. The only problem is I might find myself doing nothing else all day. This is more of an obsession than a hobby.

So, next time you’re on a train and you become aware of the train changing tracks, take look outside the window and you might just see a sad old bloke waiting for the points to change and you can give me a wave. This definitely isn’t normal, is it?


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