Station Stories at the National Railway Museum (2)

Posted on 10 December 2012 | Image, Narrative

York Station Announcer

The Station Stories team have interviewed lots of former station workers. One interviewee, Lesley Dixon, reminisced about her time as the York station announcer.

Station Stories at the National Railway Museum (2)

Lesley during her signal box days in the 1970s. Image courtesy of the National Railway Museum.

“It was in the mid 1970s when my father rang me up and said, ‘There’s a job going at York station as a relief station announcer. Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Yes I would’. So he arranged everything, I went to the interview and was given the job.

They didn’t test my speaking voice in the interview. I couldn’t understand that because talking was what the job entailed. But, instead I had a written test. I remember there was some arithmetic that I was no good at. You were supposed to get a certain percentage to pass, but because they wanted me to pass and they wanted me for the job, I was given a bit of help. I don’t know what my father had said but he must have built me up somewhat terrific. So the job was mine. I just had to have the right percentage to pass the test. I took the test in a little room.

The chap who was keeping an eye on me kept leaning over and he would go, ‘You need to do that and then that.’ Well, I’m not a maths person. I hate these things. So he kept coming past and going, ‘Ooh, you’re not getting very far there, are you? Do it like this, write that on paper now. It’s got to be in your writing.’ Until I’d written the right answer. I’m saying, ‘But I can’t do them. I won’t get the job,’ and he’s going, ‘Don’t you worry about that. Come on. The job’s yours.’

Once I started the job, a few of the signalmen knew that I was my Dad’s daughter but nobody was bothered. It was a unique job and you had to fit the bill. My Dad said, ‘My daughter has a good speaking voice. She’s had drama tuition and so forth.’ I think that’s maybe how it came about.

The working hours of the station announcer were very precise. There were two specific times of shift. The start times were 7.07 in the morning until 14.43. It’s imprinted on my mind. The afternoon shift was 14.43 until 22.19. I do remember all these silly facts.

You worked in the signal cabin. This was a large room with a signal panel. It was one huge panel, unlike these days. They’ve got individual screens now. Various men operated this big panel of lights. Each light meant something. You were taught what they were and we had a script to follow with what we needed to say for the trains. Then, what was known as a describer dropped down onto the panel with the train number. We knew that that train was approaching because it dropped down and lit up and we followed the lights. This meant we knew when the train was approaching the station, and when to give the announcement.

The train engines were always running, and this did affect the acoustics. This affected the announcements, which is why lots of people complain about York station’s announcements. It’s nothing to do with the person announcing. It’s the design of the building. This is why an announcer has to have a clear speaking voice.

If there were problems on the line, the signalmen would shout, ‘So and so’s running late by so and so.’ I remember my first day working on my own. We’d had horrendous snowstorms all over the country. Trains were running four hours late if not more and I just didn’t know what I was doing. I’d learnt the announcements off pat for everything working normal. Nothing had gone wrong when I was working alongside somebody.

Then, the first day I was on my own, it all went wrong. It was 3.30pm in the afternoon; the trains coming in were due hours earlier but were so late because the lines were frozen. You were constantly apologising and saying, ‘This is the…’ Of course, people on the platform were thinking, ‘Is she right?’ I had to abandon my script. In the end, they got somebody out of the booking office to come and help me because I was in such a pickle.

Occasionally, I had to do announcements off the script. Someone would ring over from the office at the far end of the platform. I think it’s a tearoom now. Anyway, they’d ring over and say, ‘Could you do this announcement for somebody,’ that sort of thing. A common one was somebody’s vehicle causing an obstruction. I liked doing that one because you had to say it three times.

You’d say it very nicely the first time, ‘Passenger information, could the owner of the vehicle registration number blah blah blah, please return to their vehicle. They’re causing an obstruction.’ The second time you’d say it with a little bit more emphasis, and the third time you’d practically shout the registration number. That wasn’t the way you were taught to do it, but it was the way I did it and it seemed to work.

There was a special announcement at one time of year. This was along the lines of ‘Mothers, fathers and all children, this is to announce that the Snowland express is arriving from Lapland. Father Christmas will be soon joining us so all children gather round.’ What actually happened was there was a train in the station, usually on Platform 8. Somebody would get on at one end, and by the time he got to the other end he was Father Christmas. I assume it was a railway worker.

Sometimes I’d mess about and do my own announcements. My favourite was my Hi-de-Hi! one. This was when I’d found my feet in the job. I didn’t do things like that to begin with. But later on, some mornings I’d just mess about, going ‘Morning Campers, Hi-de-Hi!’ This was just in the signal box. It wasn’t meant to go over the tannoy system. But I did once accidentally send it over because I’d pressed the foot pedal before I realised what I was doing.

I was a young person so needed to have a bit of light relief. The signalmen all had office swivel chairs with wheels and they’d scoot up and down. But they’d also relax at times and occasionally put their feet up on the panel and nod off. Not all of them at the same time might I add! I used to creep up and knock the lever that made the chair rise and they’d go ‘whoomph!’ They’d shout, ‘Get back in your box!’ Another bit of nuisance was to play frisbee with a cushion. I’d skim it across the tops of their heads. But that was just a bit of light relief. On the whole, it was a serious job.”