Signal Box Dreams


‘On Early Shift’, iconic poster. 1948 painting by Terence Cuneo


In days gone by I volunteered to act as host for those buying locomotive driving experience packages on the Great Central (Heritage) Railway. The package included a special arrangement whereby drivers for the day and a limited number of guests could visit Loughborough signal box, then controlling the northern end of the line from the loco shed, through Loughborough station and on south to the Quorn section. Special rules applied – limited numbers, standing well out of the way, talk to be given by the host so as not to distract the signalman going about his duties.


The task for the host could be quite a challenge. Groups of up to 6 might include those with a good understanding of electro-mechanical signalling technology through to those with no particular knowledge (or interest) in the subject. How, then, to cater for all tastes? After the group were standing or seated at one end of the box, it was easy to see eyes ranging over the selection of levers and instruments before them and, behind, the windows showing locomotives moving about ‘on shed’. It was tempting to launch into a potted explanation of what each instrument did, seasoned with some stories about signalling mishaps, various practices and so on. But I also had a ‘plan B’, to be executed if the group seemed ready for it. If it was a Plan B group I nodded to the duty signalman so he knew what to expect – silence.


Here, then, was indeed that silence between trains, the signalman perhaps in his armchair for a brief moment or two. Eyes would take in not only the array of levers and polished metal, but lights showing on the track diagram above, the light shining down on the journal desk, ready for the next entry. There was the sound of the clock ticking, perhaps an ember falling in the grate as the boxes’ coal fire burnt through. Here was the very essence of the box on an average day, a moment of silence in which to contemplate what it might mean to be a signalman.


Then there would be the bell (‘call attention’) and the response, then a succession of codes interchanged, minimum explanation from the host as the signalman moved towards his instruments and levers, the double movement of a lever being pulled forward, the signalman pushing a knob and watching as the needle moved to a new position, and then the final locking movement of the lever going into position, metal on metal, a faint jarring on the floor boards, the sound of cables and a servo moving beneath our feet. Then another exchange of bells and then, briefly, silence. We would watch as lights moved silently on the track diagram, a brief explanation from me and then, through the window, in the far distance, a plume of steam from a train entering Loughborough station on the down.


There were always questions, of course, always answers to be squeezed in during the clatter of metallic action, but the point of it all was the experience of seeing and hearing a box in action, a sense of a bygone age. And if I got it right, the effect on the guests was electric. I had one elderly man who I could see shed a tear, another who just wanted to run his finger over the polished levers ‘for old time’s sake’. From a host’s point of view, it was often a very rewarding experience, not because you could listen more than explain, but because you were offering something that some would remember but most would feel came from a different world.


In the NRM is what I think of as an iconic poster from a 1948 painting by Terence Cuneo. ‘On Early Shift’ depicts an express about to pass Greenwood Box, near New Barnet on today’s ‘East Coast Main line’. Cuneo’s perspective is from the box looking out, as the signalman prepares to move his levers. Loughborough didn’t have expresses hurtling past but it did have that same essence of the signal box as that which Cuneo tried to capture – that sense of movement controlled by instruments and levers but above all, the signalman at work, that glimpse of what the inside of a signal box was all about.


Four beats of the bell, then, the clatter of the levers and the sound of a passing steam train, disappearing into history.


‘Polyphemus’


By John Swanwick.



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