I always raise a wry smile when I hear people ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?”
It’s as if that one day demands gargantuan effort and logistical planning for it to happen or be a success!
Now I know to an awful lot of folk in the “Christian” Western World that Christmas is indeed a massive thing, both in its preparation and execution; it’s not for me to say that they are wrong, but some years ago I had reason to re-think my own approach to the holiday, let me tell you about it.
In those days I was still working in the railway industry, I was a senior manager in the responsible for the delivery the safe operation of passenger train services. I had a fantastic team of local operations managers and train-crew who were dedicated to the job that they did, we had a great time working together. Our area of responsibility covered the Southern half of the U.K., it was demanding work but very satisfying.
In the lead up to any holiday period we always saw increased usage of our services as people travelled to enjoy their days off with family and friends. The Christmas period on the railways was and still is, a bit different, as it is the only time of the year that trains actually stopped running for the two-day holiday; so there is just a bit more pressure to get people home before the shut-down!
As the Christmas holiday was approaching we were struggling; a virus was going around that was severely stretching our train-crew resources and sadly a couple of services had been cancelled due to staff sickness. Our resources centre was doing a great job covering the timetable and the remaining staff were really helping out by being as flexible as possible, but we were up against it!
By the morning of Christmas Eve we had shuffled the deck enough to cover every train…except the last one.
Now I had a mantra, that basically said Never, cancel the last train.
I talked through the situation with the Duty Managers in the Control and Resources Centre. We were short of a Train Manager (known as a Guard/Conductor, in other places) for the last 200 miles of the last train, as a result the Control staff had already began to look at the possibility of using replacement road coaches.
I wasn’t at all happy about 300 of our passengers being put on a fleet of buses, especially so late on Christmas Eve!
As a career railwayman, over the years I had been trained in and done just about all of the jobs in the operations department, what’s more I had ensured that I maintained my Safety Critical Competency Certifications too. All our frontline staff and union representatives knew that “The Old Man” was quite capable of doing any of their jobs, especially in an emergency and this was an emergency!
It didn’t take me more than a couple of seconds to decide that if the last service needed a Train Manager that I would cover the shift.
I’ve got to say that Mrs Dookes wasn’t over happy when I told her what I was going to do, but she understood; she knew I was a railwayman and running railways was what I did.
As for the train. Well, from what I can remember it all went well and ran on time with no dramas, but it did have a nice “Travelling Home for Christmas” vibe.
We delivered the passengers to their destinations on time, then put the train away at the end of the run.
A taxi was waiting to take me home, which was about 100 miles away, I walked into our decorated house at one o’clock on Christmas morning…it was still Christmas Eve to me!
Waiting on the table was a candle-lit light meal of delicious goodies that Mrs Dookes had prepared and a chilled bottle of champagne to go with it too!
That’s how we have celebrated Christmas Eve ever since and in a way it’s become our most important tradition of the festive period, better than the main event in many ways!
I was incredibly lucky in my railway career; I worked in some amazing places alongside incredible people doing special things to keep the wheels rolling. Sometimes things were grim, but I have lovely memories of the camaraderie that we shared doing a job that most of us loved.
Tonight, when Mrs Dookes and I sit down to our supper I’ll raise a glass of something bubbly, toast railway people the world over. Then I’ll quietly think of that Christmas Eve so long ago and thank goodness that I’m married to a wonderful lady who understands what makes me tick and who created such a lovely tradition out of my stubbornness not to cancel a train!
Have a peaceful Christmas everyone!