Some railway junctions and the need for them. . . . . .
It’s an interesting business researching railway history – any history, come to that. What you find out is often achieved through pure coincidence. The historian Simon Schama once said that when you went for a book on the library shelves, look at the book to its right. That’s often more interesting than what you originally searched for.
Recently, researching for an article on the Castlefield viaducts in Manchester (see ‘History in Layers’ on this site, 9th May 2022) I went looking for a map to illustrate the scene. ‘Manchester railways, about 1900?’ I asked the librarian in the NRM. The first search didn’t reveal much but then I bumped into an old acquaintance – Alan Jowett’s maps of railways. Beautifully and simply drawn in colour, with accompanying detailed text, I think of them as a real treasure for the historian. And, yes, there was Manchester railways in 1900, in fact every decade up until then.
Castlefield is considered by Network Rail to be one of the three most congested junctions in the UK (can you think of the other two?) The question of railway junctions stayed in my head for several days when I came across an illustrated article in one of the railway magazines featuring Worting Junction. Worting Junction is west of Basingstoke at the point where the London lines to Southampton and Exeter diverge. In 1897, the L&SWR created Battledown, a ‘flying junction’ and the article showed Bulleid Pacifics sweeping over and under the flyover.
The question of how best to connect railways together exercised the minds of railway builders from the very beginning, of course. More specifically how to do so in a way that was safe but also didn’t delay trains un-necessarily. ‘Flying Junctions’ were one approach but there were several others – ‘diamond’ crossings (Newcastle), for example – but there was always the option of ‘end on’ meetings of railway lines (as originally at Manchester Victoria – Hunts Bank) or lines that simply missed each other by going over or under the other – ‘Low Level’ and ‘High Level’ (Lichfield, for example). Perhaps the cost and complexity was getting to be too much; better to let the passenger make the connection using a lift or stairway. But freight was a different matter.
And then there was the small matter of signalling.
‘I got to stare at signals for hours when you were on the goods,’ recalled Barry when I interviewed him. You had to take your turn and with a lot of passengers (trains), it could take a while.’ He was talking about the array of signals on the down approach through Derby from Birmingham where you couldn’t use the escape route on the bi-pass lines. ‘But there was the same south of Rugby.’
Too late, I started reminiscing myself, a fatal diversion in an oral history interview.
‘I remember it was a real forest of poles for the up fast and slow lines, main and the Northampton line.’
Barry nodded. ‘My dad was a driver on the LMS. Coming on to Rugby on the up fast they were usually checked before the station and just drifted through with little steam, hoping to get the clear at the south end of the station. If not, his mate would be swearing as the loco blew off, wasting all his work.’
‘Same at Derby?’
‘Well they usually stopped you there. The station was just too busy in the day to get a clear path. It was a good old fashioned, station junction.’
Staring at Jowett’s maps again it’s the complexity that catches the eye. The maps, with all their various junctions, reflect the way railways developed in the UK – piecemeal and by competition, rather than to some ordered, national plan. Junctions map the competitive spirit of the Victorians who created them and led to a complexity which, at times, became almost unmanageable. Today we do manage them but not without equally complex signalling arrangements and some inevitable delay.
In his retirement, Barry has drawn maps of the railway system he knew, a personalised map which is available in a much less complicated form than in Jowett’s or most other atlases. But Barry has his annotations of what to expect where, an interesting picture of what junctions really meant from the cab.
‘Sitting waiting, keeping the loco ready, we used to talk about all sorts of things. My regular mate, Cyril. We had this thing going, drawing a map of how we thought the railway network should have been built. You know, all joined up.’
Sadly, Barry and Cyril’s map is long gone but the thought remains. Just how many junctions do we really need?
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Stations of rail's golden age