Saturday, 5 July 2008

Visiting Signalboxes

My friend asked how I got started on visiting signalboxes, like Tipton Owen Street shown above. I think it was through 'friends of friends'. Knowing of my interest in railways, an adult family friend took me to see Wolverampton Low Level South when I was still fairly young. I was very impressed and later we visited Wolverhampton Low Level North. I was a little older when another adult friend arranged for me to make my own way to Bushbury No. 1 where I spent some time marvelling at the complexities of working a box.

I remember on a trip to Stourport being invited into the box there (I think the box was on the station platform). I don't know how the signalman knew of my interest - I was far too timid to ask to go in. I suppose I was hanging about nearby closely following every action within the box. When a local train came in hauled by a 'Prairie' and took water, the kindly signalman also arranged for me to visit the footplate. I can recall being fascinated and terrified in equal measure. Then, it never seriously entered my head that I would one day work on steam locomotives myself, but I knew that my interest in railway signalling would remain.

Perhaps a year or two later, a young friend announced that he was friends with one of the signalmen at Catchem's Corner box, on the Stour Valley Line. He invited me to accompany him on one of these visits. My young friend was only really interested in watching the trains go by and fooling around, but the young signalman recognised my interest in learning how it all worked and he started to teach me the rudiments of Absolute Block Signalling. The signal box was only thirty minutes walk from where I was living at the time, so I became a regular visitor and was soon working the block instruments and the lever frame under instruction. Catchem's Corner was a standard L.M.S. design on the down side of the main lines with a brick base, wooden top and the frame on the side of the box away from the track. The L.M.S. lever frame placed all the interlocking on the operating floor in a compact form, behind the levers. The catch-handles on the levers were the 'trigger' pattern fitted behind the lever (like an old-fashioned car handbrake). To reduce the walking the signalman had to do, all the main running signals were placed near the centre of the frame. Running the length of the frame was the block shelf fitted with various electrical repeaters and two L&NWR Block Signalling Instruments.

As I gained more understanding, I was keen to see more. The young signalman arranged for me to visit the next box towards Wolverhampton, Monmore Green. This box controlled access to a freight branch down to a depot serving a canal wharf which handled steel traffic. Later, a dedicated steel terminal was built but, at the time, the disued canal depot was used for steel transhipment. Around tea-time, a light engine tripped from Ettingshall Road Depot, adjacent to Catchem's Corner, to Monmore Green. Here, the engine was 'turned inside' to make its way down the curving branch to shunt the canal depot. I was given a ride on the footplate from Ettinghall Road to Monmore Green, where the signalman was expecting me. On my visit, the engine was either a 'Black 5' or an '8 Freight' (I'm sorry I didn't pay more attention).

Monmore Green was a very straightforward box - a L&NW all-wooden box with a Webb tumbler interlocking frame placed on the track side. These lever frames used the 'stirrup' catch handle in front of the lever which I always preferred. I spent some time here but, unfortunately, failed to make notes and my memory of details is failing.

I continued to visit the young signalman at Catchem's Corner but he made an introduction to his friend Tom, the Relief Signalman, which was to prove significant. Whereas a regular signalman works at one particular box, a relief signalman is 'passed out' to operate a number of signal boxes. His existence is altogether more peripatetic as the moves from box to box, covering Rest Days, Holidays and Sickness for the regular signalmen. Tom and I became firm friends - he had an enquiring mind and helped me in studying all aspects of railway signalling. Over a period of time, through Tom's good offices, I got to visit (and in most cases work) a number of signal boxes in the West Midlands. I think the list is:-

Wolverhampton No. 1.
Monmore Green.
Catchem's Corner
Spring Vale Sidings
Bloomfield Junction.
Watery Lane.
Mond Gas Company's Sidings.
Dudley Port.
Oldbury & Bromford Lane.
Sedgeley Junction.
Horsley Fields Junction.
Eagle Crossing.
Golds Hill.
Prince's End
Tipton Curve Junction.
Handsworth Junction.

Life in the Signal Box is a sort of general description of working in mechanical signal boxes.

I'm grateful to all the people who indulged me in my interest during that period in the 1950s and 1960s. Subsequently, I've visited all sorts of signal boxes but the experiences I had in those West Midlands mechanical boxes will always remain very special to me.

[Links to 'Catchem's Corner' and 'Life in the Signal Box' added 20-Sep-2013]