Signalbox Trainee

The British signalbox doesn't have an exact parallel in Canada although an interlocking is pretty close. In a signalbox the switches and signals are connected by rods and wires to a lever frame so that all train movements can be controlled from one central point. Let us go into Oxford Station South Box where I spent some time during my training with British Railways.

The operating floor is on the first storey above the interlocking equipment,, The main feature of the box is the lever frame with maybe sixty levers painted different colours according to their functions (home signals - red, distant signals - yellow, switches - black, switch locks - blue etc.) Above the lever frame there is a shelf at shoulder height containing the block telegraph instruments giving the state of the section  (Line Clear, Train Entering Section, Line Occupied) and the Block Bells. On the railway side, behind the levers there are large windows running the length of the box giving a good view of the trains. The rest of the room is quite simple. A smoky coal stove, an incredibly old wooden armchair, a battered desk upon which rests the train register. The notice board on the wall contains instructions dating back to antiquity, all with a thick coating of dust and grime. A single bare light bulb is trying valiantly to penetrate the smoky gloom. The paintwork had once been cream but this has long since weathered to a cracked dark brown.

Dennis the signalman is in his chair trying to coax some heat out of the stove in an attempt to ward off the cold autumn draughts that are coming through the poorly fitting windows. One beat on the bell from Station North (Call Attention). Dennis gives one beat back and Station North asks "Is tine clear for an express passenger train? (Four beats). Dennis checks his instruments and switches, accepts the train by returning the four beats and offers it forward to Hinkley North Box which takes it straight away. He pulls off his signals. Two beats on the bell (Train entering section) and the Worcester Express hurries by. The engineer is intent on his signals but the fireman pauses just long enough from his toil on the scoop to give a friendly wave. It is getting dark but we can just discern a glint from the brightly polished copper band around the "Castle's" Stack. Dennis gives two bells to Hinkley North, checks that the train is complete and gives "Train out of section" (2-1) to Station North.  The occurrence is booked in the train register and he settles into the armchair waiting for the next "call attention”.

It was an interesting, if somewhat lonely existence which was livened up by the shunters (switchmen).  Dick, the Head Shunter, had to make all the switching moves in the station and his wishes sometimes conflicted with those of Dennis and the rule book.  The two managed a fairly stable relationship which was brightened up from time to time by Dick placing a torpedo in one of the slots of the lever frame so that the lever when moved set off the torpedo. Dennis counteracted this move by dropping a torpedo down the chimney of the shunter's cabin into the pot belly stove.  After the resulting explosion the shunters cabin was evacuated by a team of nigger minstrels covered in soot?

The two had a pretty easy going relationship although one day I very nearly caused open warfare to break out.  I was in the box working the bells and levers while Dennis was in the chair doing the booking.  About halfway through the shift Dick wanted to make a move involving a little used crossover just under the box.  The crossover had to be unlocked and the wire that operated the Jock passed through a detector at a signal some three quarters of a mile from the box. The lever was connected to the lock by one and a half miles of wire. I gave it my full strength and the lever suddenly gave way, nearly throwing me through the back wall; I had broken the wire.  As we called the signal maintainer I could hear Dick muttering something under his breath about what could happen to trainees.

It was partly to get Dick out of the way and partly to help the maintainer that Dennis suggested Dick follow the wire to find out where it was broken.  The signal wires run in a group just above ground level by the side of the line and Dick, who was a tall man, was bent double as he followed the wire in question with his fingers. He set off and was soon out of sight round the bend making for the signal.

We had become absorbed in passing trains on the main line and had forgotten about Dick until some thirty minutes later when he re-appeared, still bent double, still following the wire and still looking for the break.  It turned out that the wire was broken at the opposite end and, although the two ends were only ten feet apart, Dick had walked one and a half miles bent double.

Needless to say tempers were a little strained and it only took a remark such as:

"Trust you to start from, the wrong end.”

 for open warfare to commence.

It was a good thing that I left Oxford shortly afterwards and I hope that they soon became friends again.  I did learn however that the old proverb, slightly changed applies just as much to the signalman as to an Englishman.

“A signalman's box is his castle."

Bytown Railway Society,, Branchline, April 1977

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