When Simon Davies, Manchester Driver, heard the BBC was looking for a train driver to star in a TV documentary about life on a foreign railway, he didn't get his hopes up. But just weeks later he found himself sitting nervously on a plane to Peru, ready to begin the adventure of a lifetime.
Having already shown the film crew what life as a Virgin Trains' Driver is like during the UK portion of filming, Simon still had little idea of what awaited him in South America. The crews instructions not to do any research meant the only clue he had was the name of the documentary The Toughest Place to be a Train Driver. As he would soon find out, the title was spot on.
I spent the first night in Lima, which is a cosmopolitan place, said Simon. But when we ventured further out the poverty was obvious. There are shanty towns on the edge of the tracks, and rubbish and fires on the line. Its another world.
The engines themselves were also something of a culture shock rather than 125mph state-of-the-art Pendolinos, he was given control of old American diesel locos hauling thousands of tonnes of minerals collected from the mines that line the route.
Theyve got four brakes, everything is in reverse and they only go 20mph because of the steepness of the gradient, explained Simon. Trying to keep control of them is very difficult.
Life doesnt get much easier for the Peruvian Drivers away from the tracks either. While they are well respected, their pay is small and accommodation humble not dissimilar to the trackside shacks. But although the Drivers didnt have much, Simon said that having the chance to visit their homes and share their lives was one of the highlights of the trip.
One Driver called Eloy lived in a tiny house in a heavily polluted mining town called La Oroya. Its so bad his son developed lung problems and so his family went away to live on a farm. When I visited them there they threw a big party it was amazing. I also got my first taste of guinea pig. Its a bit like chicken leg crossed with rabbit.
The rest of the time, Simons staple meal was a soup made with intestines and offcuts. The unpalatable food, long hours and frantic schedule took their toll, but nothing could prepare him for the misery of altitude sickness. Like the flu, a hangover and food poisoning combined, recalled Simon.
And with the end in sight, he still had one big final test an epic 13-hour drive along the track from Galera, one of the highest train stations in the world at 15,681ft above sea level. Using all his new found skills and the last of his energy he made it safely to the end to be greeted by the Drivers and families he had met along the way. It was overwhelming, he said. I was exhausted, but also amazed at how they had all turned out to be there. It was a brilliant end to the experience.
Meanwhile, back at home Manchester-based ASLE&F rep Alan Moss said he couldnt be more proud of how Simon coped in Peru. There were nearly 1,000 Drivers who applied, and Ive no doubt Simon was the right person for the job, He's shown himself to be a great team-player and a credit to his fellow Drivers and industry colleagues.
"The Toughest Place to be a Train Driver" was broadcast on BBC2 9 Feb 2012