Thin blue lines

With two generations of his family earning a crust at Crewe Works, it was no surprise that Andy Gilbert choose a similar path and spent his working life around the railway. His career, however, took him along official lines as he policed the tracks, station and other buildings dotted around the sprawling railway land of the town…

Andy Gilbert 6x6, September 09 s“I spent most of my early life growing up around Lord Street. It was old railway housing, something that’s been close to the family for as long as I can remember. Dad was from Crewe and earned his living in Crewe Works. Mum was from Newcastle-under-Lyme, so he moved out there for a while when they got together. He caught The Works train that used to go from Longport straight into Crewe Works. When they decided to stop that service he had to move back to Crewe. I was about two years old then. I went to the Edleston Road School that has now closed and is used by South Cheshire College, then on to Ruskin School when I was older. So everything I did was around the St John’s ward of the town.” 

The family’s railway connections are considerable, something that would ultimately influence Andy’s career choice. “My granddad was in the foundry, roughly where Hops bar is today, over the road from Christ Church and down from the Chester Bridge offices. That was back to the 1930s. My dad also went into Crewe Works in 1967 and served his time, before working at Ponds Garage on Nantwich Road. I didn’t have a clue about my future, until one night when I was sat having a pint in the British Lion with my dad and one of his mates, Arthur, a serving Transport Police inspector. He suggested the railway police, so I asked him to get me the application forms. And that was that. I was sent to Cwmbran in Wales for 15 weeks of training. After that rookies were sent around the country to take up their first posts. Amazingly, I was allocated the Crewe office. So I only spent a few months away from the town.” 

In at the deep end, it was silly season and increased numbers on Crewe Station that provided the early challenges. “My first active role was on the station over Christmas 1992. It was party season, drunks, fancy dress and travellers falling asleep on trains and on the platforms! It’s fantastic really, as we don’t spend our time on the streets like regular officers. We don’t see the worst of it. The bars on the station tend to be closed by kicking out time so it’s a case of getting people away from the station itself, watching over the taxi ranks. When you’re stone-cold sober it can be amusing watching people trying to read timetables and count change!” 

British Transport Police s

The station provided the unit’s base for a number of years, but a move to one of Crewe’s historic buildings brought back childhood memories for the young officer. “When I joined up the office was where the new Virgin First Class Lounge is now, on the main station concourse. A few years later we moved to the old Pedley Street School, where my dad went as a kid. While he worked for the railways he took me there to show me what it was like. They used it as a paper store in the early 80s, piles and piles of dusty old paper. As a kid it looked like mountains of the stuff. So when they told us that our BTP office was moving there it was a bit of a shock. All I remembered was how dirty it was, the rats, pigeons and musty smell. But it was soon cleaned up.” 

Sway at Square One, May 09Joining the force helped Andy grow up quickly, but with it came a few interesting confrontations. “The job gave me a lot of credibility and respect from family and friends. And yet I did lose friends I’d knocked around with as a teenager, simply because I became a railway official. I realised that I had to change some of my habits and avoid old haunts. Spending 15 weeks away on training seemed to changed things and people looked at me in a different way, maybe like some look at their mates when they return from university. A barrier has been put up and some tried to exclude me. Before I joined up we all went in the Express and the Barrel – Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights! That had to change. I also had to watch my back sometimes, especially around the old Pinchers Nightclub near our office. There were a few scary moments around the back of there. It’s also strange being on the other side of the fence, as I’ve played in bands since I was young. So I’m often in places like Square One and The Box club, on stage, looking out on the audience, sometimes with people I’ve had to speak to when I’m on duty. I’ve been lucky, I suppose, because I know Bobbies who have been badly assaulted by lads we all knew at school. That’s sad, but like most aspects of the job it’s something that you have to handle as and when it happens.” 

Whilst old friends have changed, the area covered on the BTP beat has also be transformed over the years, with much of the old Works disappearing. “I’ve covered most of the tracks and buildings since I became a railway policeman, like the old coal yard down on Thomas Street, and the old cooling pools off Wistason Road, where the forge materials were cooled. That’s also near where the British Rail training school once stood. My dad learned his trade there. Now there is a massive fishing pool, created by the lads who work there. You have to go over the tracks that feed the old sheds, but beyond them and near to the Chester Line you discover this fantastic pool. It’s an incredibly tranquil place, a little oasis in the middle of the industrial area. It’s beautiful.”  

At the secret railway pool s

One side of railway police business is neither exciting nor pleasant – dealing with track-side injuries. “Fatalities around Crewe are few and far between. For years most kids knew someone who worked on the railway, be it father, uncle or family friend. So people knew how dangerous things were and that trespassing on the lines would bring shame to the family. That’s changed as less people work directly for the railways these days. Also, there are a few short cuts around Crewe that encourage people to walk along the tracks. About ten years ago a lad fell down an embankment behind the Grand Junction Retail Park. He told us that he had been out drinking and was walking  home when he was chased by a gang of lads. He fell and came into contact with the overhead cables. The fall caused some broken bones as he landed on the tracks. Then a train hit him! It was a miracle he survived.” 

Whatever daily incidents arise Andy is happy with his chosen career path. “I can honestly say that I love the job, and yet things have changed more than you can imagine. These days we go out looking like soldiers, wearing combat trousers, batons and stab proof vests. When I started it was more reserved, like you’d imagine Dixon of Dock Green, cuffs and truncheons hidden away, notebook in top pocket and awkward helmet. Times have certainly changed, but all being well I’ll being doing this until I retire…

Andy’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; all forty stories will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire. A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy from September 2016.

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