The idea of it, filled me with excitement. “Yes, I’m serious, mate” he added. “I can supervise trainees and so this is no different. I guess I should run it by my Boss, but I know you’ll do just fine. I trust you and I know you’ll be okay”. I wondered whether this meant he might get into trouble for not running it by his Boss, but he was qualified to supervise and instruct, so I trusted what he said and brushed aside any worries about that and we set off to where he worked.
Living the Dream.
It was 1996 and I’d been around a lot of the city; largely by car, by bus and on foot. When I saw the train, I was struck by how much bigger it seemed than the trains on the London Underground. It was higher, broader and certainly longer than those we see in London. I could hear the sounds of the city traffic; the throng of life outside the station. It was a slightly cooler day than usual but sunny, as ever.
We climbed aboard and I was met with a surprise; it hadn’t occurred to me that the trains were double-deck, for double-deck trains are rare if non-existent in England. The size of the train made better sense to me, from inside, and I recall being struck by how clean it was. The light scent of a floral fragranced detergent filled the air as a reminder that the cleaning crew had just disembarked.
We made our way along the train, to the Driver’s cabin at the front. This still felt too surreal to seem possible. Was I really going to drive a train from central Sydney up to Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains? It was a childhood dream, and probably is of many little boys and girls, to drive a train. I had fantasised about a journey in London or in part of the sleepy, majestic English countryside. This was something else! We set off to the next station. He wanted me to watch him on that first leg of the journey, as he talked me through what I would need to know and be aware of. Fear and excitement are alike, in that they trigger similar physical reactions; so I can’t say for sure which of the two I was feeling. We arrived at the next stop. He asked me to switch seats and we spent a few minutes going over what he had taught me. “I’d better not keep the passengers waiting too long, so we’d better set off, mate” he instructed.
The Adventure Begins.
I can’t recall which of the control panel buttons I’d had to press, turn, push or stand on, but I recall the train suddenly jumped forward into an aptly named ‘Kangaroo Hop’. This was going to be more difficult than I had anticipated. In a bit of an embarrassed panic, I offered to swap seats again. I imagined that some of the passengers may prefer their regular Driver back. He reassured me that it really wasn’t as bad as I had feared. “Stay put and give it another go” he encouraged. I did and we set off. It felt amazing. I was driving the train, although there were many controls that he still piloted; I was doing the basics and it was me who was moving the train. I loved it and I became so utterly focused on what I was doing. I wanted to do well. I had already been briefed on the importance of giving the passengers a good experience; he took a great pride in his work and that was one aspect that really shone through as being important to him. I respected that.
I recall saying that the approaching tunnel was a concern. He told me to keep driving and so we entered the subway part of the system. It was easy to see why we call the London Underground ‘The Tube’. Our trains are small, skinny tubes and the walls of the tunnels, triggering claustrophobic responses in many exhausted Londoners, can be seen just a few inches outside the windows. In Sydney, by comparison, the tunnels seemed wide and often well lit. From my perspective, anyone from the UK can feel ‘at home’ in Sydney; so much is very familiar and yet there are so many differences that serve as a reminder that the UK is a long way away.
A Leap in the Dark.
Which brings me to the purpose of this article. Suicide and awareness of mental health and emotional well-being. As we moved through the darkness of subterranean Sydney, he told me about one of the more chilling sides of being a Train Driver. Jumpers. He described how every Driver dreaded those moments when, ahead of them, a troubled soul would step away from their perch on the solid edge of the platform. Suicide. He told me that there was not one Driver he knew that had escaped this scenario; for these tragic events took place all too often. I took in a deep breath as it occurred to me that the same could happen during my supervised lesson. I imagined the faces; the beauty of human faces. Faces of broken hearted men and women of all ages who once were just playful children who danced, laughed and imagined a future of bright dreams. People whose lives had led them to that shocking and tragic final moment. I imagined them standing patiently, breathing deeply their last breaths before the moment when they would lift up one foot and step forward. I imagined that step; an exit away from our often troubled and painful world into whatever they believed would come next.
At this time in my life, I had not yet trained as a Counsellor and Psychotherapist. Nonetheless, even back then I had a great interest in the human mind and I asked him what the impact of these suicides had upon the Drivers who experience them. Helplessness. That is what he described, at first. A powerful sense of helplessness when the sorrowful shape of a ‘Jumper’ was first seen at the platform edge; identified as a ‘Jumper’ somehow instinctively – something about their demeanour and gait. A split second later, they have taken their step and, despite the frantic effort of the Driver to stop the train, the helpless acknowledgement that nothing would change the course of this person’s life, in that bleak moment. The human face of the ‘Jumper’ imprinted forever in the mind of the Driver; haunting them by day and by night and causing the many complex symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He told me that Drivers would sometimes be in therapy for years; stuck in a cycle of self-blame, shock and their own heart break. There were Drivers so affected that they lost their jobs, their relationships and some would develop self-destructive behaviours, such as substance abuse and addiction.
I saw the mix of deep sorrow, sincere compassion and then the distant, somehow vacant look that only happens when someone has opened up their memory to revisit a past moment of horror. He paused and looked down, as if staring into time; his eyes red and welled up with tears that awaited his permission for them to fall. A permission that he was powerless to give. The next platform was coming in to my view, as we approached the station, and we both found ourselves pulled back into focus by our need to safely guide the train in.
Into the Blue.
We eventually made it out into daylight and, within a few minutes, I was again surprised but, this time, by a vast and monumental beauty. It hadn’t occurred to me that we would, of course, have to cross Sydney Harbour Bridge. The thrill of excitement hit me as I realised that I would be one of the few people in the world to ever have an opportunity like this. This vast ‘coat hanger’ of a bridge stood before us. We moved closer and closer and then we were on the bridge. Time stood still. I soaked up every moment of this experience.
I was driving a double-deck passenger train across Sydney Harbour Bridge; a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I smiled all the way across, as I was taken aback by the sudden ‘blue’ of the vast surround of water that is Sydney Harbour with all of the neighbouring harbours, wharfs and rivers. Sydney is a city that sits amid water of the brightest blue; like a sapphire sparkling in the sun. It was breath taking. I had only been down to Circular Quay, near the bridge and Sydney Opera House, the day before. I’d had no idea that I would be doing this, the very next day!
I could see the famous Luna Park; sadly looking unloved, tired and in rusty disrepair, below. Plans were in discussion about the renovation of this classic amusement park that sits in the shadow of the mighty Sydney Harbour Bridge. It would not be long before the work of renovation would begin and the park that so many had loved would return to its bright and cheery spectacle. I wondered what everyone I knew, back home in England, would be doing right at that moment. Sleeping, no doubt; if only they knew what I was doing! We ploughed on through New South Wales, inland towards the Blue Mountains and the beautiful mountain town of Katoomba. The landscape changing from cityscape, to farmland and eventually, ever higher and higher as we climbed into the lush green forests of the Blue Mountains. I guess I could tick something amazing off my ‘bucket list’.
(C) Dean G. Parsons. 2021.