by Nick Cory
A selection of stories from Nick Cory. Contributions like these are are welcome but I reserve the right to reject unsuitable material and to edit as necessary. Please e-mail your contributions to Railway Technical Web Pages.
You know I'm sure that a number of signalling practices were introduced in response to particular accidents and named after that place or they were introduced for a particular purpose and then named after the place where first used. So, for example, the use of trainstops without signals on the approach to a terminus, each controlled by a time relay and going down just a fraction of a second before a normally-decelerating train reaches it, is often called "Moorgate" control after the infamous accident there.
Most of these controls have nowadays probably been subsumed into the signalling principles and given mere numbers.
There was one called "Lime Street Control", which has I think nothing to do with an accident. It refers to the use of short track circuits on the berth of the home signal and track circuits of similar length in the platform. The length corresponds to a 4-car (as they originally were) Class 304 emu. The bobby sees on the diagram how many such units are already in a platform and can only clear the home signal to a "shunt" aspect if the approaching train, as measured by the track circuits in the berth, will fit into the free length of platform. The driver sees on the signal a numeral showing how many units are already at the platform. First installed at guess where....
There's another one called Raynes Park control - I won't go into that!
On the track diagrams of mechanical signalboxes, and on the signalling scheme plans associated with them, you can often find a track circuit associated with the starter signal and carrying the cryptic label "Welwyn". Usually the track is located a little bit past the signal, such that a loco boiler might nudge past without occupying it - not uncommon, I was told. I've never owned a copy of "Red for Danger" and the only one I've read was in the school library. So it's about 35 years ago.
From fallible memory then, this is what happened. In the 1930's, AIR, a bobby at Welwyn accepted a local train, putting the block instrument handle to "line clear" - the handle is repeated on a three-position galvanometer in the rearward box and that is the visual authority for the rearward box to clear his starter. At the same time, Welwyn offered it forward, got a line clear, cleared his own signals and sat back in the armchair. So far so good. Then the local was "pinged two" (in section) as it passed the rear box and he put his own block instrument to "train on line".
So far so good. These things were not interlocked - it's only the disciplined use of these block instruments, which are little more than reminder devices to help a Mk1 human brain, that keeps things flowing. From then to the train passing depends on the block length, but can often be several minutes. During this time the Welwyn bobby dozed off.
He awoke when an express was offered. It might seem odd for a box to offer a train when the forward section is still showing train on line, but they did it deliberately to hustle things along - some bobbies can be very slow to clear the section. I knew one dozy one at Spratton, on the now-lifted Northampton-Harborough line, who often forgot to check the tail lamp - he would then simply wait for the next box (Lamport or Broughton Crossing) to clear it and then do the same. Not bad for a line that was only open 2200-1400 Mo-Sa and which had anything up to five unfitted freights during that time!
Rule 1 of signalling - A "train" is a device for conveying a tail lamp from one signalbox to the next. Not much to remember, really. And, according to rules, you don't offer anything until you get 2-1 from the next box and see the instrument go from "Train on Line" to "Normal" - offering too early is simply provoking the receiving bobby into making a mistake. Anyway, this express Welwyn accepted, thinking the local must have been long gone and forgetting to look at the instruments to see whether the forward box had cleared the local. You can imagine the rest.
"Welwyn Control" uses relay "Stick" features to provide compulsory sequencing between the arm of the starter (via electrical detection contacts), the starter lever (which carries an electric lock that is released while the next box has his instrument in Line Clear) and the track circuit at the starter signal, from box to box. A BSR (block stick relay) at each box is normally energised, fed "dead" by a front contact of the track circuit relay, which simply means that that contact is not bypassed by any other.
Box "A" can only pull his starter lever when Box "B" has put his instrument to Line Clear. Once the track at A has been occupied, the instrument for the forward section to B "self pegs" to train-on-line, even if B fails to move the handle manually as he should when receiving the two pings from A. B then offers to C and all being equal gets a Line Clear which allows B to clear his starter. The train arrives at B, occupies the track there and pegs forward to C. At the same time, the BSR drops via a contact of the track circuit relay. B might give another Line Clear to A by turning his handle, or might forget ever to move it away from Line Clear, (i.e. fall asleep). But only when B has his starter back in the frame, the track circuit is clear and the signal arm is detected "on", can B's BSR re-energise. The Line Clear back to A is taken over a front contact of the BSR, so it is proved that B's signals were put back to danger before A's starter can be cleared again.
There are variations on the tune, such as requiring the instrument handle to be in Normal (located between Line Clear and Train on Line) in order to re-pick the BSR (block stick relay). Since BR regions liked to maintain intellectual independence of one-another, the term "Welwyn control" became common on Eastern Region, while the other regions often called it "line-clear-one-pull". Often the whole thing is powered by wet cells or even king-size disposable dry batteries, a pile of which could often be found oozing poison in the undergrowth behind the box. To prolong the life of these by not feeding the neighbour's electric locks the whole time the instrument is in "Line Clear", the feed to the lock is taken over an "economiser" contact, on the catch-handle rod of the starter's lever, or a separate button on the block shelf.
At Wellingborough Station, all the electric locks were over catch-handle contacts. After getting the line clear you had to hold the handle squeezed for half a second and wait to hear a clunk from below the operating floor. If you were too quick, you just wrenched your shoulder!
The box was original Midland Railway all-wood. The frame of these boxes had its own foundations and the box was loosely assembled round it, being rather flimsy. Stories abounded of signalmen crashing through the shiplap walls when wires of distant signals snapped at the critical moment. "Our" worst distant was the down main - the inner distant (18) was mounted on and slotted by the Wellingborough Station Junction's (aka "the Junction") outer home, so it was a good 1000 yards from its lever. The outer distant, 18R, located on Irchester's down main starter, was motor-worked off an arm contact on the inner, without its own lever. My problem as a skinny teenager was getting 18 off cleanly - there was a lot of stretch and sag in 1000yds of signal wire and it had to be snatched quickly to send a wave down the wire. If the arm hung at half mast, it would catch the contact half way and leave the outer arm bouncing up and down, which we could see on the repeater dials on the block shelf.
Because of the short blocks through the station, all the levers on the main had electric locks. These are denoted by a white band halfway up the lever. There's an additional feature I've not described here and which played a part in the brakes incident. A Line Clear release has a "use it or lose it" feature. Once you put your starter to danger, even though you've still got Line Clear from the next box, you can't pull it off again. You have to get the receiving box to cancel his line clear and start again. And you have to break a glass in a little cast box on the block shelf, a glass which has a paper chitty glued behind it and dated & signed by the S&T lineman. You put a little handle into it and wind it round and round to move a contact along a very fine screw. This takes about five minutes and is a real pain in the posterior. Only when you've finished that are the relays reset. Of course it requires a detailed entry in the block register and the S&T have to be called out to re-seal it. So the trick with the poker saved a lot of effort, by preventing the electric locks re-enagaging on the starter and advanced starter. We could hold the train till the problem was sorted and then send him on his way again quickly.
Despite all that, Welwyn control and the use of track circuits on the berths of homes and starters are the last "modern" features that made mechanical signalling finally acceptably safe and nearly foolproof - except that foolproof systems are operated by fools. Really lazy bobbies could of course get round the entire block by using the poker trick and just pull off the starters whenever they felt like it - it wouldn't be the first time. In the 1980s a bobby near Manchester managed to move points under a Hadfield emu, by tweaking an electric lock under the floor. He meant well, he just wanted to get the points turned for a closely-following train and it was standard practice at that particular box.
To see mechanical interlocking at a high degree of perfection, with an abundance of electric locks controlled by full track circuiting, I thoroughly recommend a visit to Kidderminster SVR box. Of course, it's quite possible the GCR has achieved similar high quality installations since I was last there - didn't the S&T lads win an award?
The Midland men were in fact rather lazy, though that brake incident was the only time I saw one bypass any interlocking - and what he did wasn't dangerous in those circumstances. But I'm sure there was a lot I didn't see just because opportunities didn't arise. They'd developed their own shorthand bell codes, something that might well have been the case elsewhere, though I never saw any signs of it. I used to spend a lot of time round boxes on North-Western lines in Northampton and the GN main line near Peterborough, but they always used the codes by the book. (btw: is Northants the only county through which GW, GC, LNW, Midland and GN main lines passed?)
Not on the Midland! There was no use of the official 1 for "Call Attention"- the bell just blasted a straight 4 pings out of the blue when any kind of passenger train was offered. The instruments were BR Standard bakelite ones, with lightweight mechanisms which could tap and receive a bell code extremely fast. That, together with the lack of an attention call, made it quite difficult to "read" some of the lesser-used codes, like the one used when the boxes at Irchester or the Junction were being switched in or out.
Due to the uniformity of trains and relatively thin traffic I only knew a very few codes. My all time favourite was the newspaper (1-3-1), which was always answered with a 1-1. When I first began going there they still sent & answered the official 2 for Train Entering Section, which also has "call attention" status and isn't preceded by a 1, and the receiving bobby would turn his instrument to Train on Line. But when I went again in Summer 76 after my first term at the Polytechnic, they'd dropped the manual pegging completely, sending but not answering the 2 and relying on the self-pegging of the Welwyn circuits to set the instrument to Train on Line.
I didn't know about the new practices. The bell pinged 2 for a down train and I leaped up, pinged 2 back again and pegged over. The bobby was pretty pissed off and shouted at me before picking up the phone to Sharnbrook and saying "I've got one 'ere, see", which meant he had a prat of a visitor. They used an unofficial code of 1-pause-1, called one-oh-one, to announce to the neighbours that a "suit" was coming up the steps - usually the suit was Julian, the block inspector, who also brought the pay and stayed for a cup of the bitter black fluid which was always available from giant aluminium cans on the stove, which went by the name of "tea" and which was surprisingly good once suitably modified with a large shot of milk and three spoons of sugar.
There are stories, of course, about tea being brewed only once a week, with tea leaves and water being added as required until the following week. I can't verify that. My experience was that the tea pot, a thing of village hall proportions, was emptied as a courtesy to the incoming man at the turn of each shift. And then restoked continually through the shift. The other activities that preceded every shift change were cleaning out the stove, stoking it, sweeping the floor, and dusting the block shelf.
When we received a one-oh-one like this, which of course you didn't answer, we would get some cardboard discs out from behind the instruments and hang them on the relevant bell tappers. As long as the discs were hanging, you had to use the official full bell codes on that tapper, and tap slowly so that Julian could read the codes! Sometimes the discs were put up if there was a relief man in a neighbouring box - relief signalmen are geniuses who know their way round probably two dozen boxes. But they tend to do things by the book.
One time that the book was definitely ignored was when 4472 was scheduled to pass light-engine on its way to London. It would be the first engine to pass in steam since nobody knew when. The problem was... it was a weekday and I had school. But it was scheduled to pass at 7am. Being summer, it would be light enough for photos. Two neighbours were also interested, so transport was resolved. We could leave home at six and drive to Wellingborough, photograph Scotsman and I would still be at school (near Daventry) before nine. Keith, "my" bobby, swapped shifts so he could be on duty - the other man wasn't interested in railways at all and was glad of a lay-in. He also agreed to my neighbours coming over.
In the end, when we arrived, there were already about 15 other people in the box, including Keith's daughter Kim, who was a couple of years older than me, tall, slim, blonde, devastating Lee Remick looks and utterly distracting in a tight, snow-white shirt and Wranglers. I'd met her before on other visits and was spellbound. She had already left school so I had a feeling of utter inferiority and thought she was a kind of unattainable goddess. The engine was late, of course, but when Finedon Road finally offered "Light engine", that was the cue for everyone to leave the box and swarm up cutting sides. Including the bobby. The only ones left in the box were Kim and me. So what with looking after the block (there was down traffic at the same time) and being completely tounge-tied and flustered by the aura of Kim, I got lousy photos of the Scotsman through the window. (I was far too shy to ask for a photo of her...) And to make matters worse, I found out that Kim was going out with the relief signalman, so I've hated those smart alec relief men ever since. Especially when some months later Keith said he'd gone to a lot of trouble to get her to be there that day and couldn't understand why I hadn't asked her out...
One Saturday evening I was, as usual, spinning out heading for home. There were couple of Merrymakers to pass, which might bring unusual traction, and three football charters were booked. All this made for a "busy box" and of course I wanted to see all this extra traffic pass (i.e. handle them) before jumping on my bike for the 15 mile ride home.
A London club had lost up north and the word on the omnibus was that the trains' interiors were being slung out of the windows as they headed south.
Keith, 6' 6", 20 Stone, worked as an "Enquiry Agent" when he wasn't on duty at the box. I gather this is a euphemism for debt collector, though he was very coy about it. I only found out when looking up his number in the phone book. It can't have brought in much extra money, for he had a tiny terraced house and drove a Reliant. He often cat napped between trains, deep in the ancient armchair by the stove.
This time he was streched out on carriage cushions on the big wooden chest that contained the emergency tools, blowing zeds. I often wondered how these carriage cushions, having the latest moquette design, came to be in a signalbox whose carriage sidings were lifted in the 60s. I was doing homework at the register table, where there was a gas reading lamp. I looked up from my school books because I'd heard an unfamiliar tinkling on the block shelf.
The needles of all the block instruments to and from Sharnbrook were swinging wildly to and fro, pinging the end-stops. There was an unfitted freight somewhere between us and Sharnbrook plodding along the permissive up slow; the line being permissive they were only offered, never cleared back. Irchester and the Junction were switched out, as usual. The Junction, although fully signalled, was only used like a ground frame for a trip freight that went down the stub of the former Northampton line to the Whitworth's cereal mills a couple of mornings a week. Irchester was early shift only, Mon-Fri. I think they only kept Irchester open as a favour to Nat, the only Irchester bobby, who lived in a railway cottage there.
I nervously called Keith. "What d'you want go waking me up for?". "The block's gone mad", I said pointing at the needles. He was wide awake in a flash and on the omnibus to Sharnbrook. The omnibus circuits ran for great distances and groups of boxes were connected to each circuit. There was no dialling - each signalbox had a callsign of long and short buzzes - and everyone can talk and listen to everyone else all the time, which a lot of the bobbies did for a couple of hours a day - quite a talkshop.
This time Keith had to buzz Sharnbrook's callsign several times before they answered - very unusual. I could hear that the line was very crackly and he had a job to recognise his callsign. They shouted at each other, with lots of "Yer what? Eh? and (very Northants) "Whatsay?". Keith hung up and decided that the lines were seriously damaged - all the block and omnibus circuits were open-wire pole route still, probably the last major pole route in the country, all poles being doubled and perhaps 50 pairs of wires on them. "It's kids - that Irchester lot", he said. He tried some long bell codes, like 5-5-5 but only a fraction came back.
This wasn't good news. From Wellingborough to Sharnbrook is a very long section and to caution trains through, as the rules demand when you suspect the pole route might be down across the lines, would be to damn them to a good 15 miles of driving on sight. On top of which, darkness was falling. Keith buzzed Control at Derby. He started speaking formally - it was very unusual for him to call Control."Wellingborough Station box, Signalman Mitchell speaking". But then he and the voice recognised each other and spent five minutes yacking. Finally he said, anyway, he was calling because we'd got a full block failure, all four roads, between Wellingborough and Sharnbrook. There was a pause, then he said, "That's it, you go in your corner and laugh, you silly c**t."
More loud laughter could be heard from the phone - probably a clutch of other bored bobbies had been listening in all the way to Melton. Keith reminded Control about the specials and the havoc it would cause on a Saturday night, with only five boxes switched in the whole way from Bedford to Wigston, just south of Leicester - namely Sharnbrook, Wellingborough, Finedon Road, Kettering Station South Junction and Market Harborough. He told control about the up freight and said it might have come off, damaging the block circuits (and possibly fouling the fast lines, though he thought that most unlikely). That thought hadn't occurred to me. I said, "Send the specials Harborough - Northampton and into Euston". That was the route still followed by a Glasgow-Leeds-Euston sleeper train on weekdays. Drivers would not be a problem - in those days, drivers went where there were rails and Holbeck men knew, or bluffed, their way into Euston as easily as Perth. "If it's green, it's ours", was their motto.
Keith passed that on to Control, but they said they couldn't raise enough signalmen to open the line at short notice - it needed five men and all the boxes were very remote locations. They said they might find someone to open Irchester, to shorten the block.
We tried the block once more but by now everything was dead, including the omnibus to everywhere south. Keith wrote in the register that time-interval block was in force on the fast roads and the slow were closed because of suspected obstruction. Not having the slow lines available was a nuisance. If we were cautioning five southbound specials, plus the four regular trains you get in a two-hour period, they'd be queueing to leave Leicester - even though our time-interval block had a shorter headway than the absolute block!
A regular up express had now been waiting at the home, about 250yds north of the box, for about 15min. We called him up to the box with the call-on arm of the signal and a yellow Bardic waved from the window. Keith told the driver "you're on your own to Sharnbrook, the block's out - watch out for derailed vehicles fouling your road". The driver gratefully called us c**ts and trundled on southwards. Soon after, a northbound driver, sent forward "on sight" by Sharnbrook, told us some kids had made a bonfire round a telegraph pole south of Irchester and it was leaning out over the slow tracks - he thought the f****er, I assume a synonym for "pole", was held up only by the wires and would fall down pretty soon. He also said that Sharnbrook wanted him to tell us the up freight had cleared the section ok, so that was one less worry.
The slow and fast lines follow separate alignments south of Irchester. The slow is easily graded and has a tunnel under Sharnbrook summit, having been built much later with unfitted freights in mind. Knowing that, we could be sure the fast lines w ere not foul, even if the pole was to fall. Armed with that assurance, the drivers would be a bit faster through the section than if an obstruction were strongly suspected - you won't find that in the rule book, though. Derby had to be phoned again with the news and were asked to send police and fire brigade to Irchester to investigate - we couldn't do that because we had no GPO phone, not even a railway automatic phone. (I might add that the box was still gas lit at this time - electric lighting wasn't installed until 1977, after another bobby complained about not being able to read the Sun, sorry, the weekly notices, properly. And the gas lighting was still maintained because the other bobbies didn't like the glare of the "letric".)
The first football special was quite something. It had to be stopped and ritually called forward from the home, which was a slow process, before being given a ticket for the section to Sharnbrook. The station staff cleared the platforms of all waiting passengers, while we hid behind the box. The driver stopped his Class 45 beside the box steps so that no carriages were opposite, then waited for us to retreat before moving off. There were bottles, cans, light bulbs and seat cushions coming out of every window, it seemed - not to mention the abuse. A couple of panes of the box got smashed and had to be patched with cardboard purloined from the porter's office. Then Irchester box was opened by a relief signalman, providing an additional block section, and we could operate normally again, transferring to him the problem of handling the failed block.
The pole route was never repaired - they by-passed the damaged section with a multicore cable on the ground the same night and soon afterwards the whole pole route was taken down. Keith's shift was over at 2200, so I had to be out of the box before the incoming shift arrived. They usually changed the night shift a little early, so the late man could get off for a pint or two of "Duckhams" (As I recall, 50:50 pale ale and stout) on the way home. At half past nine there was still one footy special awaited, nearly three hours late. Keith said the train would be reduced to flat wagons. Now I knew how those comfy Mark 1 cushions came to be in the signalbox (and probably every signalman's garden chairs...)
As for driver's flattering remarks about signalmen, I learnt that c**t applies also as a compliment. There used to be a thing called the Fletliner, a train advertised in the Weekly Notices as COY-AIR, meaning a company (private) train with air brake. This would run as Class 5, which gave it almost passenger train status. It carried half-height open containers jammed full of bricks from the Fletton company sidings at Stewartby through to Speke, via Wigston and Nuneaton - you could still get onto the down WCML at Nuneaton then. Empty it ran via Bletchley, so it was the right way round for the sidings at Stewartby. It was hauled by a pair of Blobs (Class 25s) with Nuneaton drivers. This thing always came down the slow lines, never over Sharnbrook summit.
Miserable Bedfordshire bobbies! At Wellingborough we had a connection from down slow to down fast and with the coal traffic disppearing fast, this train was the only thing that could stop the connection from going rusty. And it was the only thing that gave us a chance to exercise our minds with a bit of train regulation. It had to be timed right. A pair of Blobs is not exactly superpower for such a heavy train and it had to be squeezed between a pair of down passenger trains, or held for 10 minutes. It could travel at 75mph on the fast line, but take a long time to get there. On lucky days it would come rolling down from Irchester into the Nene valley just as the down express overtook it. The driver would know he was "going across" - if our distant was off he'd be going straight down the slow - that's what the other shifts did for an easy life. If it was on, he would know Keith Mitchell was on duty and wanted him to hang back a bit, avoid getting stopped at the home (which was only about 200 feet in rear of the bracket starter) and then charge at the crossover. If he stopped at the home, the curve would make restarting into a slow business. So, once the down passenger cleared our starter, we'd set the crossover and be poised to offer the Fletliner to Finedon Road as soon as they spotted the express's tail lamp. At the same time, Sharnbrook would be offering the next down passenger, a stopper, which would be just accelerating past Bedford North box and crossing to the down fast. We couldn't accept that if the crossover was set, as it's trailing end was inside our quarter mile.
When the release came from Finedon Road, I'd pull off 8, 10 and 21 in quickfire sequence - the down slow home, the down slow to main bracket and the down main starter to send the Fletliner, by now creeping up to the home, cracking on his way north. Now this was doing the drivers a big favour. They'd have to stay on the fast through Kettering, go over the watershed to Harborough and at Wigston they'd be routed to Nuneaton and be home in time for Sue Lawley on Nationwide. But if we left them on the slow, as the timetable showed, the miserable gits further north would send them via Melton Mowbray, they'd come through Leicester southbound and be at Nuneaton in time for a late supper. So to put them onto the fast was fun for us, nailbiting for Sharnbrook, who might be showing a distant to a down stopper by now, and good for the drivers. Keith would hang out of the box door, wave his arms in circles and shout "wagons roll, get the bastards out'a here". The driver would grin, give a thumbs up and open up the 25s, they'd drown out our shouts with their deep blobbity-blob and the train would lean awkwardly into the reverse camber of the points. Some drivers would lean out and slap the cabside, as though spurring on a horse. And if you listened carefully, you could hear the driver shout back "About f****g time too, you c**ts." This was a ritual!
And reading this again, I realise just how much extra capacity the line gained by having colour-light signalling installed - despite singling of the slow roads south of W'boro and their complete removal between W'boro and Kettering! Imagine having to show a distant to a train leaving Bedford because the preceding one hasn't cleared Wellingborough, fifteen miles to the north! You couldn't run today's service like that. Once the 35mph unfitted freights were gone, it was nonsense to maintain four roads.
A spoof by Dr Andre Zeug, Head of Business Development and Central Marketing at DB Cargo and published in the German publication "Deutscher Verkehrszeitung" last year, suggested what would happen if the freight lorries and coaches driving across Europe were subjected to the same idiotic regulations as the railways still impose at the borders.
" A truck that comes from the Ruhr industrial centre and heads for Milan arrives at the German-Austrian border and must prove that it has a brake system approved for use in Austria. As well as that, it needs a different coupling. The driver must also be changed, after all, the German driver doesn't know the Austrian highway rules too well. A few other special bits and pieces are needed on the truck for passing through Austria. In a nutshell; you need the full equipment of an Austrian truck in addition to that of a German one. Next, the new driver arrives at the Italian border and learns, si, si, - everything has to be different. That means a third brake system is needed, the blinkers have to be swapped to green and on top there has to be a fume extractor because that's all differently regulated in Italy to keep the Adtriatic free of pollution. And of course, it's understood that an Italian Union brother must come on board, so the Austrian has to get out before the truck can continue into Italy..."
Dr Zeug might have added: Why was the truck making the detour through Austria in the first place? Because trucks in Switzerland have to be narrower. But he makes his point. In fact, Swiss railways are probably more liberal with their technical standards than any of the "big three" that surround them. On a recent visit to the Knorr Bremse plant in Munich, large brake panels were being assembled for Alstom locos for SNCF and Adtranz locos for DB and FS. All UIC brake systems but all panels completely different. The SNCF panel was populated with valves of 1950s SNCF-approved designs, made in a Knorr factory in France. The German panel... the Italian panel... yeah, you got the picture. Enough to make you frein-tic ? Sent in by Nick Cory, 13 March 2001.
Signalmen with Brains!
"Electric interlockings demand no significant manual work from the signalman. The selection of these employees can therefore be undertaken with greater concentration on the intellectual rather than the physical capabilities". (Siemens & Halske, "Electric Interlockings for Points and Signals" 1908). Translated from the German by Nick Cory, 13 March 2001.