Signalbox and Interlocking Etiquette

My final job on British Railways was Area Manager, Haverfordwest in West Wales.  My territory stretched from a very English part of Wales around Haverfordwest and Milford Haven to a very Welsh part around Whitland.  Just after I arrived my wife, at that time she was unknown to the staff, overheard a conversation between two railwaymen:

“What do you think of the new Area Manager then?”

“He’s not bad for an Englishman.  Look you!”

Rare praise indeed.

At that time, the railway was controlled by a series of interlockings, known as signal boxes.  They were connected by means of block telegraph and bells and each box had a lever frame placed behind a wide window to give a good view of the trains.  Signal boxes could be lonely places at times and it required a special breed of man to work in them.  They had to have an intimate knowledge of the Block Signalling Regulations and how to apply them – and it was my responsibility to supervise them. 

I quickly learned not to question requisitions for emery cloth, dusters and floor polish.  Signalmen were very house proud and kept most of the boxes in immaculate condition.  The steel lever handles were cleaned every week with emery cloth and it was more than my life’s worth to pull a lever by grasping it with my hands as this would corrode the metal.  It was necessary to hold the lever with a duster provided so as not to tarnish the brightwork.

Johnston signal frame, March 1968. Note the duster on the lever to the left and the well polished steel handles.

The floors were polished to a high shine.  Part of my duties was to visit each box regularly and sign the train register book.  The first time I went to Clynderwen box the signalman saw me coming and was blocking the doorway.  He was wearing slippers and carrying the train register book. 

“No need to come into the box, Boss.  Just sign the book here in the doorway.”

That way I would not bring dirt on to his shiny floor.  I knew this was how they treated the train crews who were not allowed inside because of the dirt.  However, I insisted on entering to inspect the box.  The signalman thereupon threw a duster on the floor and made me shuffle about so as to maintain the shine – but at least I had gained entry!

Johnston Signal Box

Inside Johnston signal box March 1968, showing a block bell and block telegraph instruments.

I gradually came to be accepted and one day I was in a box on the Milford Haven branch discussing the single line electric train staff system then in use.  Until just before I came they had used an old form of train staff which was essentially a metal rod about two feet long and an inch in diameter which weighed 3-1/2 pounds.  These large staffs were occasionally difficult to catch on a moving engine and there were tales of firemen who had their ankles broken when the signalman threw one of these into the cab of a moving engine.  The signalman then told me that two of these relics had not been returned when the system had been changed.

“They’re behind the train register desk in Tenby box, Boss.”

My next port of call was Tenby!  As I entered the box I accidentally tripped on the duster and fell heavily against the desk.  There was an ominous thump and two old train staffs fell out on to the floor.  The signalman looked embarrassed at my discovery.

I merely said:

“I am going to take one of these and you will remove the other from this box today.”

The old train staff for use between Saundersfoot and Templeton is in my den today and is one of my prized possessions.

Johnston Signal Box
The oil lamp at Johnston signal box, March 1968.

There were some gems in the boxes in those days.  The signalbox at Johnston had a beautiful oil lamp which I would dearly loved to have had.  The box had just been connected with electricity but the signalman argued that there might be a power failure so he should keep it in the box.  I didn’t have the heart to take it so I just have a photo to remind me of those interesting times.

Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders, The Interchange October 2009.

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