A Very Ordinary Story Chapter 13.

A Very Ordinary Story

CHAPTER 13

A Change of Direction 1968-1979

I was not destined to be a stationmaster for very much longer. British Rail was running at a loss and had to be heavily subsidised by the Government of the day. Railways biggest oncost is staff. So economies in that direction were looked for, and after much negotiation it was decided to abolish Stationmasters and group stations, geographically, together, appoint Area Managers and a small staff centrally to supervise and administer the stations under their command, leaving only a bare minimum of staff at stations. So I was duly declared redundant and was required to apply for a new position, from those that had been created in the new set-up. I was lucky enough to be appointed as chief passenger clerk and cashier for the Ardrossan Area, which involved receiving all the monies for banking and the daily accounts from outlying stations, collating them, compiling the Area Balance Sheet monthly, compiling and monitoring the Area budget as well as looking after all stationery and stores. I found myself even busier still, the job was varied and interesting, but I took badly to being stuck at a desk all day, after the freedom of being my own boss as a stationmaster with lots of outside duties. I persevered for some time at this, always looking for something better, as it was a bit of a dead-end job and I couldn't see myself as an Area Manager. A post was advertised as a temporary computer programmer at HQ in Glasgow, and, as it was one grade higher than I was, I thought that I'd have a go.

At this time I had been attending an evening course, run by Glasgow University, at Ardrossan Academy, on Computing, on the assumption that, if it didn't do me any good it wouldn't do me any harm. It must have done some good as I was called in to do an IQ test, w hen I saw the other applicants for the post, my heart sank, they were all at least half my age and even younger. I was 50 years old!! It was the normal sort of IQ test similar to those run by MENSA.

Though I thought that I did quite well I was sure my age would be against me but anyway, I was eventually called for interview, and, against all the odds landed the job. BR Scottish Region was using a "steam" ICL 1300 computer which used valves, and two large rooms were needed to hold it. The only peripherals were a Card Reader and a Printer. It was used to produce the payroll and it took just about all week to do that. The old ICL 1300 was housed at Parliamentary Road and was under the control of the Chief Accountant, as the computer was used mainly for Payroll work. Scottish Region were rationalising their HQ organisation, as different departments were scattered throughout Glasgow and there was a surplus of buildings after nationalisation and only one HQ was required. A new building, Buchanan House had just been custom built to bring all the various departments, as far as possible, under one roof. When the move to the new building was made, the Computer, programmers and the Punch Card girls were to become the new Data Processing Department under the charge of Alex McCrae, and ex stationmaster like myself. There was to be a new, more modern, computer installed in Buchanan House. An ICL 1900, the processor consisted of two huge cabinets, each larger than a big sideboard, a faster card reader and printer and a deck of six magnetic tapes, we were really with it! All controlled by a Computer Operator at a small console typewriter. No one else was allowed to use the computer.

Before I took up my new appointment, I was sent to London on a four-week programming course with ICL. So off I went, booked in at the Mount Pleasant hotel, which seemed to be the hotel for Scottish Region personnel when they were in London on business as I met several of my colleagues there at different times. The ICL training centre for their customers was in Googe Street, just off Tottenham Court Road and was quite a distance from the hotel with no direct Tube or bus service, most days I walked it.

There was a Greek area quite near the training centre, where I sampled the various Greek restaurants at lunchtime. The programming language I had to learn was called PLAN, ICL's language for their own computers. It was a mnemonic language, a stage or two above plain machine language, but nowhere near the high level languages like COBOL etc. The point of using a fairly basic language was that it did not take up so much space in the computer as the higher levels did. Space was at a premium as there were no micro chips in those days, just transistors, our 1900 had 64K Words of memory or, in present day computerese, 256 Kb. (a 'word', in ICL jargon, was made up of 24 bits which could be an instruction or data, consisting of four characters of 8 bits (8 bits equal 1 byte) or, in numeric, a very large positive or negative number.

Computer programming in a low level language is very demanding as every silly, or perhaps important, little detail has to be thought of and allowed for. During the first week of my course, I thought I would never make it as it all seemed so complicated and, to make matters worse, my colleagues christened me Granddad, as again, they were all half my age or less. However I stuck in and, at the end of the course, reported to take up my new appointment at Parliamentary Road where I found that the programmers were all busy transcribing the 1300 programs to PLAN (I don't know what the 1300 language was called). I was given one of the payroll programs to rewrite and found that I really enjoyed the work. The only snag was as the 1900 was not yet installed we could not test our programs, so, on a couple of occasions the Chief Programmer, the assistant and myself spent weekends at Derby, where BR had an ICL 1900 installed. It was a bit shattering when at the first attempt; the computer didn't understand the very first card of my program and stopped dead. At this point I should tell you, if you don't know already, that the computer is completely stupid. It cannot think for itself. It will only do exactly what it is told (exactly cannot be emphasised enough). The least little wrong input will result in either the computer seizing up or producing garbage. Computer users should never forget GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). The computer operator at Derby was very good and he was able to keep us right, it was valuable experience for all of us. Eventually the great day arrived when we flitted to our new offices in Buchanan House, most of the payroll suite was complete and we were able to do a lot more testing of our programs on our own new computer. A deadline was set for the new system to go into production and there were quite a few days - and nights - of sweat and sometimes near tears, but we made it. There were a few teething problems, but nothing catastrophic. We then got down to broadening our scope for producing systems for our computer. It was no longer the baby of the Accountant, but was there for all to make use of. Particularly the Staff department who seemed to have a huge appetite for statistics and various items of information pertaining to staff matters, the Civil Engineer and the Signal & Telegraph departments made use of us for technical work, stores control, work planning, etc. We were kept very busy. There were no multipurpose package programs then.

Soon my position was made permanent, and later, after attending other courses I was promoted to Management status and became a Systems Analyst, continuing my programming at the same time. During my time there, I seemed to be the guinea pig for anything new that came out. I was given the remit of testing out various optical readers as an alternative means of input, but at that time, it was not sophisticated enough for our requirements. Then we tried a paper tape system, which did meet our needs and after trials that was adopted as the main means of input, with the card reader as a standby. I was also sent on a COBOL programming course, and, on return, wrote the only COBOL program in our system. COBOL was not adopted for general use because, as I said before, it used up too much core. In fact some of our PLAN programs, because of their size, had to be overlaid.

All this time, economies were being effected, the biggest economy being the run down of staff in the Region and it soon became evident that the size of the Region could not sustain a Data Processing System of its own. The Computer complex at Crewe was being upgraded to cover all the computing work of B.R., and eventually, the axe fell. I, along with my other colleagues, was made redundant, and we were given closed vacancy lists to apply for other posts in the establishment. The data for transmission to the computer at Crewe was written to Magnetic Tape and sent by landline using a Modem. I was fortunate enough to get a position in the Audit Office, albeit at the same grade, but never took up the appointment. The payroll programs at Crewe were completely different from ours and of course the input documents were different. So four teams were set up to train the HQ payroll staff on how to process these documents, and the outlying station staff on how to compile them.

The system had been redeveloped, embodying all the different conditions of service for staff viz. Officers, Management staff, clerical, trainmen, signalmen, technical staff and many others besides I was temporarily promoted and given the task of being team leader, assisted by two senior payroll staff, Kate McNab and Margaret Wilson, who provided the payroll know how, while I was the Computerese 'expert' to train HQ staff in the new methods. Before this we were all sent to Crewe for a teach-in on the new system.

We came back and set up a training centre at 87 Union Street where we taught HQ staff, in bundles of ten, for two weeks at a time in the new system, while the other three teams were sent to train staff at the outlying stations and at Area offices. The training of the Payroll staff at HQ didn't take us many weeks, and after we had finished, my team were then given the task of training the Civil Engineer's staff in their new system, so, before this, I spent a week in Taunton looking at how the Western Region did it.

After all the staff had been trained and the system was in operation, I had visions of going back to a desk job in the Audit Office, but the Payroll Accountant, who was a namesake of mine, managed to retain me in his section as a liaison between ourselves and Crewe but gradually this job became less and less necessary, as the staff grew familiar with the system. I found myself not looking forward to going to work, knowing full well that I had little or nothing to do, but was loath to do anything about it as I was on higher salary rate than that of my proper job.

However at that time the then government produced a job release scheme, whereby a company could release older employees provided they gave an undertaking to engage a young person in his place. I took advantage of this and on 10th. August 1979 I retired, at the age of 62, and, as I had completed my full time in the Superannuation Fund and was entitled to a full pension, and that along with a tax-free allowance from the government kept us going till I reached pensionable age.

Retirement 1978-……


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