Greg Bruce reports on 10 months of riding the rails with Auckland's best train conductor.
The first time I heard him was February this year, on the 4.46pm, eastbound from Britomart.
I thought: "This guy's gone rogue."
I thought: "This guy won't last."
I thought about the pressures of a job like his: exposed to a cramped, disgruntled public for long stretches of time, your central purpose being to enforce rules and ensure safety and otherwise generally piss people off; and how hard it is to maintain your equanimity in the face of all that. I thought about that glorious news story from a few years ago when a long-suffering flight attendant grabbed two beers, popped the emergency exit door and slid, ass-first, to a quasi-sozzled afternoon of freedom. That flight attendant had been about to leave for New York; Neil was on his way to Manukau.
Public transport is both a tightly socially constrained and heavily routinised environment - you know exactly what's going to happen and when - and, in an environment like that, even the smallest unconventional act lands like an explosion. So it was with Neil's otherwise humdrum introductory announcement over the PA that day: "I can well understand after your hard day at work..."
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Heads popped from devices, people looked around to see what was going on, somebody laughed. He went on, something I couldn't decipher about our journey, then, just as the whole enterprise appeared perched on the precipice between innovation and insanity, he said: "To add to your satisfaction, I will do exactly what you want and that is to get off the microphone."
That's as close as you'll ever get to a literal mic-drop from a train conductor. Laughter rippled through the carriage. Strangers smiled at each other. Several hundred emotional lives, otherwise hidden behind blank looks, devices and books, popped into each other's views and, for a sweet moment there was a sense of camaraderie and genuine human connection. At least two strangers spoke. The world changed, only for a moment, but a moment's not nothing. He signed off, "Your train manager, Neil."
I didn't hear him again for several months. I imagined a scenario in which he'd been forced out by some emotionally immobilised middle manager, whose leading KPI was the reduction of passenger headcount around doors.
It was a great thrill, then, in May, when I again heard his voice, with its distinctive flat tone and extended pauses. He began: "I can see many of you are struggling to stand ..."
It wasn't an inherently funny or interesting statement. Had it been said at a school talent quest it would not have stifled a single one of the audience's endless yawns but there on the train, so contextually discordant, it raised heads, induced smiles, gathered hundreds of disparate lives into a spiritually unified and joyous whole.
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He went on, in his slow monotone: "I thought you might like me to sing a song." There was a long pause. Surely he was joking. Then he said, "In fact, I think I will" and it became obvious he wasn't.
He launched into what was recognisably the tune of When The Saints Go Marching In but filtered through the intoxicating glacial flatness of his speaking voice: "When the train begins to move / Oh when the train begins to move / You want to be on that service number / Oh when the train begins to move."
He continued ("When you alight / there's nearly a fight...") but you get the gist. It wasn't exactly poetry but there was something so lovable about it: the intention, the uniqueness of the voice, the obvious preparation, the determination to bring joy to this most officious of jobs in this most prosaic of situations: words are not always so important as actions.
Two days later, he was there again - the same service, the same deadpan drone: "It is Friday," he began, "and the fun starts right here." Already that was the funniest thing I'd heard all week but it turned out to be the lead-in to a long and boring explanation about rail buses replacing trains over the weekend, which made it even funnier.
It is easy to consider entertainment a frivolity but it's more than that, because any attempt at it always involves at least one person trying to convey a feeling to others, which is inherently an intimate and risky act. Not everyone loves Neil, just as not everyone loves the music of Barry Manilow. Nevertheless, once you have commuted with Neil, your commute will forever be influenced in some small way by Neil. The great lesson he teaches is that life never has to be free of surprise and human connection, even at those times when it so obviously does.
Why does he do it? What motivates him? What makes Neil Neil? I asked Auckland Transport if they could put me in touch with him. "This has come up before," they replied, "and Neil has been shy about publicity." They nevertheless passed me onto Transdev, which employs Neil. "Neil prefers to stay well out of the limelight I'm afraid," a Transdev representative wrote. I asked if they could at least let me know Neil's schedule. They never replied.
Maybe it's best we only know about him through the medium of his onboard communications. To see your heroes stripped of the thing that endeared them to you, clothed instead in all their mundane humanity, in a cafe or some other meaningless setting, is invariably disappointing. What proportion of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's life, for instance, is spent sexily smoking cigarettes, surrounded by Emmys, on a sun lounger at the Chateau Marmont?
My fourth trip with him was in July. After a brief introduction in which he discussed the role of train managers, he began singing to the tune of Que Sera Sera: "Some days I'm happy / Some days I'm not / But this really doesn't bother me / Que sera sera, whatever will be will be / The future lies in the hands of AT / What will be will be."
Was this song a cry for help, I wondered? Had the crushing bureaucracy of AT and / or Transdev finally worn him down? Presumably not, because there he was again in October:
"I'm sorry the audio system doesn't seem to sound right," he began, "And I wondered whether you would like my voice." He emphasised the word "my" in a way that sounded strangely suggestive. Someone wolf-whistled.
He continued: "Anyway it's great to have you on board this service to Manukau. Please do make the best of your travels while you stay safe at all times and please consider those around you. It is important to have a long list of friends on Facebook and Whatsapp but it is far more important that you have at least one friend on this service who can read you as a book and ask you, 'What's up mate?'
"Anyway, should you need any assistance, all you have to do: You [singing] Just call out my name / And you know wherever I am / I'll come running. [Speaking] To see you, first. Your train manager, Neil"
He signed off, as usual, to laughter and scattered applause.
It is not always easy to understand what he's saying. The PA system on the train is suited to straightforward, pro-forma announcements: "Mind the gap between train and platform at Ōrākei station" or "Take all your belongings." It's not ideally set up for free-wheeling, structurally-and-syntactically-erratic commuter musical theatre. There are sometimes long stretches in Neil's announcements where I have no idea what he's talking about. That doesn't stop me enjoying the fact he's talking. Content is not everything.
Not long after my wife and I had our first child, six years ago, she told me she had come to realise the appeal of the now-defunct mid-morning television show Good Morning, with its telegenic hosts and their inane chatter. The show had never previously been attractive to her but suddenly, alone at home all day, she found herself a semi-regular viewer. She described it thus: "They're your friends on the TV."
He was on my train a second time in October. He began: "I once asked my daughter if she could give me a good message that I could carry to my friends on the train and she said, 'Dad, whatever you say, let it be short and sweet.' Not really convinced, I turned to my wife and asked her the same question. She smiled: 'Do you really want me to tell you?' And my daughter said, 'Your friends on the train will be the happiest if only you learn to keep your mouth shut.'"
His daughter was right about one thing: We are his friends on the train.
On my most recent trip with him a couple of weeks ago, he told a long story about a passenger who once needed assistance. It concluded as follows:
"She had one foot on the train and the other foot on the platform and then she raised her head and as I was closest to her, she said:
[Singing] I wanna hold your hand / I wanna hold your hand.
[Speaking] That's when I told her:
[Singing] You're in safe hands / You're in safe hands.
[Speaking] And guess what she told me in return?
[Singing] / You're the man / You're the man."
What do his various long-winded announcements and increasingly outrageous musical punchlines tell us about him? He's an outlier, a rebel, someone who is relentlessly optimistic in the face of trying circumstances, his wife and daughter think he talks too much, he values friendship, likes a laugh and has a weakness for easy-listening rock 'n' roll - specifically the oldies. There's probably a lot more to him - but isn't that enough? Must we know everything about everyone? Just because someone makes some of their life public, should that really entitle the public to the rest of it? Isn't there a case for leaving some mystery?
Are you joking? I didn't take a job writing stories about people for New Zealand's leading daily newspaper so I could make an argument against writing stories about people. Neil, if you're reading this, please email me (email@example.com) at your earliest convenience so we can arrange an interview. Phoebe Waller-Bridge: same.