A Pendolino driver has been speaking of how he drove a freight locomotive down a mountain in Peru.
Simon Davies was taking part in the BBC documentary, ‘The Toughest Place to be a … Train Driver.’ The BBC approached Aslef for help with the programme and several drivers responded.
Says Simon, who works for Virgin Trains, ‘The plan was to spend a couple of days ‘roughing it’ as I drove the freight train that brought minerals from the mountains to Lima’s port. Then we would recuperate for a day or so in a pleasant hotel. But someone had miscalculated the distances – and the days of luxury didn’t happen.
Chosica was the last nice place we stayed in. After that it was grim mountain towns, poverty-stricken polluted places surrounded by grey shanty-town mining villages. Some places looked like the moon: others like hell. And yet in the middle of all this terrible poverty and devastation, I met some unforgettably kind, welcoming and wonderful people.’
Simon was driving a big American GEC diesel with anything up to 30 wagons from the Andean mountains to the port of Callao. ‘The gradients are astonishing. I’m quite practical as I used to be a mechanic, but every driver told me a different way of putting on the four brakes. And if you look away for a second with all that weight behind you, the speed races away. The conditions were beyond belief. The shifts were usually about eleven hours and the drivers had no flasks or food with them.
‘The train crawled alongside 1,000 feet drops inches from the track and other drivers would point out the sites of crashes. ‘They’d casually point out bits of metal that showed where a loco had gone off the mountain. Was I frightened? Of course I was! You should see the state of some of the bridges we crossed.’
The altitude brought its own special form of sickness. ‘I got it really badly at one stage. I’d hardly slept and the lack of oxygen means it’s difficult to digest food. I slept with an oxygen bottle next to me a few nights, as ill as I’ve ever been.’ In La Oroya, one of the most polluted places on the planet, Simon met a driver called Eloy.
La Oroya is in a massive valley, 11,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by mountains and mines with a huge smelter bang in the middle. It’s polluted with lead, copper, zinc and sulphur dioxide. Eloy had moved his family to a farm five hours away after his son collapsed with breathing problems. The lead levels in La Oroya are three times the World Health Organisation’s limits. To keep his job Eloy lives in railway accommodation, visiting his family when he can.
‘But in the middle of this hell, you find the most wonderful humanity. Eloy invited us all to his farm and it was an amazing experience. I felt so ill that day I was almost helped into the car, but when we arrived I could hardly believe my eyes! We were met by a brass band that led us through the village with everyone coming out to greet us. We had an astonishing party, an incredible experience. It was the first time I’d eaten guinea pig!’
All Simon had to give them in return was some Aslef regalia and badges. ‘I wish there was more we could do for them, ‘ he says. An Aslef plate now hangs upon the walls of Eloy’s mother’s house.
Check out the BBC programme on iPlayer, just click ‘here’.