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Man becomes first tube driver with colour-blind condition

PICTURED: Alex Bulley, right, with TfL train operations manager Joe Brown

DRIVING TRAINS had been 26-year-old Alex Bulley’s dream but a shock diagnosis of colour vision deficiency almost meant it never came true.

But thanks to his supportive elder brother, a train driver himself, and TfL train operations manager Joe Brown, Bulley has become the first driver with his condition to pilot a tube train anywhere in the world.

Describing the moment he discovered that his train driving dream was out of reach, Bulley told The Voice: “It was actually devastating, especially as it was a condition that I didn’t actually know I had. And it’s something that I had gone my whole life without even knowing and lived a life unaffected by it so then be told that it would completely halt your chosen career one that I looked to progress and excel in through many years was really, really devastating.”

A colour deficiency condition means Bulley, cannot detect different shades of red and green, something that is essential to identify the signals used on many lines on the tube network.

After failing a test in which prospective train drivers are tasked with recognising different images made up from red and green dots and despite what initially seemed like a damning diagnosis, neither Bulley or his brother Adrian would take no for an answer.

Adrian brought the issue to Brown who then set about looking into how the signalling systems and improved technology could accommodate drivers with conditions like Bulley’s.

Brown undertook a “huge amount of work” to conduct a comprehensive review of the safety risks. His findings paved the way for the trial to allow people with colour vision deficiency conditions to drive trains on the Jubilee line, which uses an automatic signalling system that does not feature red and green lights.

“There was a great sense of relief and gratitude especially towards my brother and Joe Brown who was also instrumental in helping to lift the barriers by undertaking you know a comprehensive review of all the safety critical tasks necessary for someone with a colour vision deficiency to operate a train, and the risk mitigating factors that he put in really did help me to be on the train and have these barriers removed,” Bulley said reflecting on the removal of the barriers.

The development was particularly special for Bulley, who has been a train driver for just over a year, as he was inspired to become pursue the career after observing his brother in the role.

While Bulley’s ambitions may have sparked the change that enables individuals with colour deficiency conditions to operate tube trains, the development has meant that three other of his TfL colleagues with similar conditions are also able to drive as a result.

“It’s part of our policy to be as inclusive as we possible can. So as technology changes we are always examining ways that perhaps we can revisit what are standards are,” Brown told The Voice.

“It absolutely makes sense that historically we have expected our train drivers to be able to tell red from green because historically that was a very important part of their job because signals are red and green. But as more and more lines have become automatically operated with a different system, we’ve been able to examine the standards,” he added.

Brown said he was “absolutely over the moon” when he heard the news that Bulley had passed his train driving qualification without any errors.

Speaking about the impact that the change has had on the drivers involved, Brown said: “It’s obviously had a huge bearing on their lives and the fact that it’s hopefully going to become a permanent change later this year means it’s not just opened the door to those four people but there’s potentially, dozens, scores, hundreds of future people who will be able to benefit from this work. So it’s personally very gratifying to put work into something and see that it has kind of a positive impact on people’s lives.”

Bulley is happy to have left what he says is his “small” mark on the world but like Brown, he’s also extremely positive about the legacy the review will inspire.

He’s also hopeful that his experience can provide inspiration to others facing obstacles.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel if you would excuse the pun,” he says laughing. “Definitely, no matter what, if you’re going against anything...big odds or something that looks insurmountable, just keep going and always believe that there is a chance that you can succeed.”

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