Southern Rail invited 10-year-old train-fanatic David Elston down to the Lover’s Walk train maintenance depot near Brighton station to show him how it looks after his favourite trains and keep them running.
David from Rustington, Littlehampton, who has autism, absolutely loves trains. Travelling on the network has helped to improve his speech and awareness; he has Sensory Processing Disorder, which can cause him to feel overwhelmed, but travelling on the trains - and talking through the calling stops with the announcements - can have a very comforting affect.
David’s mum, Donna, 42, says he likes the trains for a number of reasons: “It’s a calming environment for him; the train moves on the tracks from station to station – there’s no deviation. He finds the physical movement comforting too. David is also fascinated by the mechanical structure of the trains so the chance to see them up close was so exciting for him.”
The special tour for David came about after Southern’s Ryan Bower, Production Leader at the Lover’s Walk site, spotted a sign up in the café at David’s local station, Angmering, asking people to donate their old tickets for the young boy. “Two days later I saw David at Angmering Station and saw first-hand David's reaction to trains passing through the station. His mum Donna was taking him out for the day on the trains and it was lovely to see,” said Ryan.
“Seeing that, it really made me want to help in some way; as a production leader/engineer at Southern I am surrounded by trains and we are lucky enough to see a side of the trains the travelling public will never see,” he added.
After securing the required permissions – and an extra-small high-visibility jacket – Ryan arranged the tour of the Southern maintenance depot at Brighton Lover’s Walk for David. He said: “Hearing the joy that the railway brings to David every time he travels on our service is inspiring and seeing his reaction made me want to do something different for him, something that he will always remember.
“There can be so much negativity surrounding the railway and the business of running a service; it seems a shame when historically the railway is an institution and should bring joy as it always did.”
David got to get up close to the trains and learnt how the team ensure that the Southern and Gatwick Express trains are ready for service.
Donna said: “Thank you so much to Southern for making David’s dreams come true; it was a day he will never forget. Angmering station is practically our second home already – I can’t see that changing now!
“Carol who runs the station café always makes David feel so special – the sign asking for old train tickets helped his collection expand quite quickly. This makes such a difference to us as a family. Carol and the station team always go the extra mile to make him smile,” she added.
April is Autism Awareness Month and Donna is keen to encourage the public to ask questions rather than stare when they are travelling on the network. “While we have had more positive experiences than negative, there still needs to be more awareness.”
David’s love of trains and travel has had a positive impact on his verbal development; the list of destinations on the train, while comforting due to their repetitiveness and order, helped to calm David on journeys and enabled him to start putting together sentences at age five.
Donna campaigns for greater understanding of people with autism. “This includes explaining some of the behaviour and differences that children may adopt to make their lives easier, such as wearing ear defenders or reciting a list of stations. We’ve been able to use David’s passion for trains to improve his learning. I encourage people to ask questions to help them understand what autism actually means rather than stare.”
While his favourite brand is the Gatwick Express, David prefers the newer Thameslink trains, though be warned – if you share a seating area with David, he has been known to ask to see your ticket!
David is 10 and attends Palatine Primary School in Durrington near Worthing.
Govia Thameslink Railway
Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) operates Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern and Gatwick Express services as follows:
- Thameslink – cross-London services between Bedford/Peterborough/Cambridge and Brighton/Horsham/Littlehampton/East Grinstead, and between Luton/St Albans and Sutton/Wimbledon/Rainham; plus services between London and Sevenoaks
- Great Northern – services between London and Welwyn, Hertford, Peterborough, Cambridge and King’s Lynn
- Southern – services between London and the Sussex coast (Brighton, Worthing, Eastbourne, Bognor Regis, Hastings) and parts of Surrey, Kent and Hampshire (Ashford International, Southampton, Portsmouth)
- Gatwick Express – fast, non-stop direct services between Gatwick Airport and London Victoria