Recovering and reclaiming signalling equipment for heritage railways. . . . . . .
Most of us have familiarity with the heritage railway movement, some of us from afar, and some of us by what we have done physically to help. There are those stories of long days, and nights, labouring over second hand bits and pieces to get locomotives and rolling stock back to life. There’s a certain camaraderie that comes across in these stories, the sort of camaraderie that comes from sharing in a common cause, usually a tough, almost impossible one, with mixed results. Problem solving, big time.
In 2017 a colleague interviewed ‘Graham’ for the oral history series about East Midlands Railways and, specifically, the Great Central (GC). Graham’s department was ‘signals and telegraph’ (S&T) and he proceeded to recount the history of his department from its early beginnings on the then wreck of a railway in 1969. In case you might be thinking this is about signals and cables, think again. This is a story of physical hard work mixed with technical knowledge and an element of good fortune. It reads like an atlas of places across England where pieces of signalling equipment were recovered from a disused state and somehow transported to the GC.
‘Our first acquisition was a signal post, number 28 from Eggington. It cost £3.50 and we transported it using a J4 van we had, with all the straps and braces and flags. It was 30 feet long and we moved it on a Sunday morning. The police stopped us at Willington cross roads and then gave us a friendly warning to ‘take care’. After that we got some ground signals from Moira. We did that using a Land Rover.’
Things slowly got bigger. More complicated. Thinking about the average signal box, it is, of course, a box, sturdy to cope with weather, big enough for the signal equipment and good enough for the signalman to see what’s going on. Not an easy proposition to transport across the road network with volunteers, albeit knowledgeable and physically fit ones. ‘Our first box was Hornsey Number 1,’ recalled Graham. ‘We paid a few quid for it and a gang of lads went over, took it to bits – roof, windows, frame etc – with trains running on the Kings Cross mainline on either side of us. We had lookouts and all the proper arrangements but it felt pretty strange. Then there was Bind Lane, Wembley. The Box was OK but it was at the end of a quiet cul de sac. We got on fine with the residents who brought us cups of tea and cake and let us store the parts in their front gardens until we could come back and take it all away.’
Things got even bigger. There was Market Rasen which involved a stay at a local pub and a move in the snow. ‘We were told the wrong height for the overbridge so we had to use country lanes to Lincoln. It was hard work. Two lads travelled inside the box to make sure we cleared overhead lines along the roads.’
’26 of us went to Aylesbury South over 2 weekends and lifted the box at 2 30 am in thick fog.. The biggest was Neasden South. The crane driver was Irish and turned up in a brand new Rolls Royce. ‘How much do you think it weighs?’ he asked nodding to it. I guessed 8 tons. When he had done it he came back and said I was wrong, it was eight and a half!’
Graham’s stories were fascinating, jobs sometimes spent in uncomfortable places and at strange hours of the day and night. At Cannonbury they had to carry the wooden signal mast up the embankment from a tunnel entrance and over a ten foot high wall at the top. When it started to get dark the police turned up and asked what was going on (a suitable story to be told over a pint in a pub, I thought). ‘When they found out they offered to stop the traffic to help us’.
Those were the days, those times when British Railways were only too pleased to have relics of the past taken off their hands for a small fee and without them even having to dismantle and transport the objects. But the result was hard work and what, today, we might jokingly call ‘scrapes’. It was, I suppose, a time when volunteers got to do many things they never even dreamed of getting involved in but when they did, the results were worth it – a heritage railway, fully functioning with cheaply acquired, authentic signalling. Just how cheap? Graham thinks there are about 100 signal masts on the GC today (someone reading now might be able to verify this) so just think about the cabling needed to connect these up, alongside the various components of expensive electrical wiring needed for modern communications. Graham thinks they were saved by the advent of BS5750 that requires ‘traceability’ of components. No traceability means scrap or a knocked down price for anyone willing to take materials like cables off the ‘big railway’s’ hands. He quoted some eye watering statistics about what was paid for some bits and what they would be worth in today’s money.
It was a fascinating story, this idea of moving large wooden boxes and long poles around the road network to make another railway. I wonder what the Victorian signalling engineers would have made of it all. I suspect that, back in time, Graham would probably have been in charge……..