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Short stories from the history of Britain's railways 

  • FNRM News Editor

Updated: Feb 1

This historic 1947 New Year’s Eve sound recording in a signal box at Reading, Berkshire, 36 miles from Paddington mentions that it was a few minutes before midnight. Midnight that night was the time at nationalisation when the Great Western Railway became the Western Region of British Railways. The bell code of four beats consecutively (“Is line clear for an express passenger train”) received from the next box down the line can be heard. It is answered with four consecutive beats. We then hear the two beats on the bell for the train entering the signal box’s block section, and this is answered with two beats. The two beats on the bell plunger inside the signal box can be heard and this acknowledges to the signal box which sent it that it was received and correctly repeated. The sounds of signal levers being pulled and replaced in the metal frame can be heard. That cast iron frame would have been made in the Great Western Railway Signal Works at Reading which provided much of the company’s signalling equipment. We don’t, though, hear the next bell code which would be two – pause - one beats for the train leaving the signal box’s section. Reading was an important station and junction and there were a lot of signal boxes in the station area such as Kennet Bridge, Reading Main Line East, Reading General Middle, Reading Main Line West and Reading West Junction. There was plenty of round-the clock work for signalmen here every day of the year. You had to be good at counting the sounds of the bells, for example 9 – pause – 5 – pause 5 beats either meant that a lampman or fog signalman was needed. The lampman would be needed to refill or re-light an oil signal lamp, vital in hours of darkness, or if it was really foggy a fog signalman would need to be stationed by an important signal with a red/green/white oil handlamp, flags and a supply of warning detonators. If the signal was at danger, warning detonators would be placed on the rail and would explode loudly if a train passed over them. The train driver would know to stop – quickly! If the signal was clear then the detonators would be removed until the train had passed.

Out of interest, the last Great Western Railway train ever to leave Paddington station did so at 11.50 p.m. on 31st December 1947. This was the overnight service to Plymouth via Bristol which was hauled by “Castle” class locomotive 5037 "Monmouth Castle". It was a sad time for some, and the train left the station in virtual silence. At Reading, it would have been the 12.40 a.m. departure after its first stop there. Back at Paddington at 12.05 a.m. on 1st January 1948 on the new nationalised railway, the first British Railways Western Region train left to a few cheers and the sound of exploding detonators. This was the Paddington to Birkenhead train hauled by “Castle” class locomotive 5032 "Usk Castle". These two locomotives are pictured in British Railways days in photos taken by Mike Peart. The double-chimneyed “Usk Castle” is seen in the yard at Old Oak Common engine shed, London in spring 1962. This loco was withdrawn and scrapped in September the same year with 1,288,968 miles on the clock after 28 years’ work. Then “Monmouth Castle” is seen in the yard at Swindon Works at Easter 1962. It still has its single chimney after a heavy intermediate overhaul, it has just been repainted and is waiting to be re-united with its tender. This locomotive lasted until scrapping in March 1964 with 1,500,851 miles on the clock after a working life of 29 years.

By Mike Peart.

Pictures courtesy Mike Peart.

The New Year's Eve sound recording will be made available soon.

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Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Charlie Walton, of the North East branch of the Friends, has written a reflection on the memorial the Friends commissioned at Locomotion to commemorate the employees of Shildon Wagon Works.

Remembrance Sunday is a time for reflection. Even in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important that we do not forget the ultimate sacrifice that was made by those who died in the First World War. The Friends of the National Railway Museum North East Branch at Locomotion decided that it in order to acknowledge the contribution the employees at Shildon Wagon Works made to the war effort, the museum should have an appropriate memorial to remind us of those who served in defence of the realm. They therefore commissioned a display featuring their names. It is positioned next to the 9 plank NER wooden bodied hopper wagon which Shildon Wagon Works built in their thousands. In gathering information about the display some of the branch members who worked at the works and others whose families could recall stories about the works provided us with some interesting anecdotes about the site during the WW1. These included the tale of when the works was plunged into darkness by a quick witted employee who hurried arranged for the lights to be extinguished when he observed in the night sky the menacing shape of a German Zeppelin. As the Germans had built most of the industrial infrastructure in the nearby Gurney Valley, doubtless they had a good idea where the works was situated. Fortunately, the Zeppelin we believe passed over without incident as its intended target was in all likelihood the various railway bridge crossings on the Haggerleases Branch and Tees Valley.

By Charlie Walton

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  • nrmfriends

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

Northenden Junction signal box

The latest additions to the Film Archive of Railway Signalling and People (FARSAP) can now be viewed. These films have proved to be very popular when details were posted on several Facebook signalling groups. The star of the show this time has been the signal box at Northenden Junction on the route between Altrincham and Stockport Edgeley Junction. As you can see from the picture it is a very tall eyrie of a box which has an 1881 Cheshire Lines Committee 25-lever frame and, to reach it from ground level, a long internal staircase with 42 steps. In the feedback, signallers who worked there in the past talked of lowering the single line token over a pulley using a long piece of rope with a home-made hook at the end so that train drivers could easily reach out and get the token. They also talk of the box having the smallest toilet in the world and some very fit rats which climbed the 42 steps. Several stressed the importance of checking they had everything to hand when coming on duty as you didn’t want to negotiate those steps more than was necessary. Some spoke of leaning a plank of wood against the ground-level door at nights so that any out-of-hours visitors opening the door would displace the plank and the noise would wake you up and, it is said, give you plenty of time to get out of your sleeping bag! One signaller rebuilt and re-assembled his rally car engine in the box between trains - and later wished he hadn't given the trouble he had getting it out again down 42 steps….. It beats “The 39 Steps” hands down one supposes!

Moss signal box

Also very popular has been the film of 12 locations between Selby and Doncaster on the East Coast Main Line. Film was shot in 2014 and 2015 before some of the crossings were changed from hand-operated gates on a 125 mph line to what are defined as "MCB-OD" crossings - literally translated, this means "manually-controlled barrier operation with obstacle detection", although it should be pointed out that these crossings actually operate automatically: they are initiated by approaching trains and have no direct signaller involvement when working normally, apart from them monitoring the process. This film includes the North Eastern Railway style box at Moss and the crossing at Balne. There are now around 170 signalling locations shown on the free-to-view films in the FARSAP archive. Additions are made when the films shot by volunteers from the Friends of the NRM and Signalling Record Society are edited. Helpful primers about signalling subjects cover some of the technicalities, and signallers recount their memories. Just search online for FARSAP – there’s a lot to see. 2-1 “Train out of section”.

Former crossing equipment at Balne

By Mike Peart

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