The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

​A talent for dealing with disruption


Marie Staunton talks to Trudy Habgood, Denmark Hill Station’s manager

Trudy is surprisingly relaxed for a woman responsible for a station busier than Blackfriars in a pandemic. We meet in the operations room. Small, white and windowless, it also serves as staff room, kitchen and storeroom. Four computer screens show trains as moving green squares, signals as flickering red dots and a barrage of emails on train delays, platform alterations and requests from passengers. Christopher, a retired accountant who joined the team eight years ago, juggles the requests while Trudy takes calls from the six other stations on the Catford loop that she manages (Nunhead, Crofton Park, Ravensbourne, Catford, Bellingham and Beckenham Hill).

The previous weekend she was duty manager for all of Thameslink south of St Pancras, sorting out one passenger stuck in a lift, another drunkenly falling down an escalator, organising a deep clean of three stations where staff tested positive for Covid and counselling two workers who had been threatened by passengers. Station staff now wear body cameras to record assaults.

Problem solving is Trudy’s game. Twenty years as a wedding planner for a Lincolnshire manor house taught her to “put on a front and paddle like anything in the background”. Guests at one wedding were surprised and charmed to be dining by candlelight, unaware that this was Trudy’s response to an unexpected power failure. In 2016 her husband got a job as a train driver and Trudy moved with him to become a train dispatcher at Bedford station.

A dispatcher watches the signals, keeps an eye on train passengers getting on and off, gets ramps for boarding, watches the area between the train and the yellow line, raises her bat to tell the driver to CD (close doors), blows a whistle and gives a green light for RA ( right away) to dispatch the train. Trains terminate at Bedford, so Trudy disembarked those too drugged or drunk to move and the homeless people who sleep on trains. She would wake them gently, aware that she may be the only person who spoke to them kindly all day. Station staff see many homeless people. This year the team made calendars to sell for Noah, the charity for the homeless.

In May 2018, Thameslink was in the news as the infrastructure failed to keep up with new timetable changes, throwing the network into disarray. “When the train service is disrupted you come into your own,” said Trudy. “Working with limited information, perhaps a radio message that there will be no trains for two hours, or the overhead lines have failed. Passengers want to lash out at someone and you are wearing the uniform, so it is you. I learnt not to take it personally. And to listen carefully to people who had planes to catch, were worried about missing their appointment for cancer treatment or the mum who needed to be home for her son’s first parents’ evening, and to be inventive about getting them on their way.”

The job became quieter when driver-only operated trains (DOO) which use cameras along the length of the train were introduced, reducing the need for dispatchers. Then Trudy’s experience was used to train others across the network. In July 2020, she was appointed station manager for the Catford Loop, just in time for the opening of the new £80 million Denmark Hill station entrance. Luckily, the money had been allocated before COVID hit the railways’ income.

Now the railways are being renationalised under Great British Railways. Since Denmark Hill was built by architect Charles Henry Driver in the 1860s, it has been privatised and renationalised twice and almost demolished in the 1980s before the Camberwell Society intervened and persuaded British Rail to preserve it.

What difference will government control make? Decisions will be slower, but as Denmark Hill continues to be busy (passenger numbers doubled between 2014 and 2019) the station will thrive. Trudy hopes that the new free cycle bay on Windsor Walk will be used (just scan the QR code to get your free access card). She is keen to bring back to life neglected areas, “just like Nick and Tony from the Camberwell Society have transformed what was a horrid area with their planting and installations”. After eighteen months as our station manager, Trudy says, “I like it here. It is always busy. If you want to see all of life, the worst and the best of people, join the railway!”

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival