Memories of Middleton Junction West


Memories of Middleton Junction West

by Bob Wright

In a previous article I mentioned visits I was fortunate enough to make, to Middleton Junction West signal box and of a signalman who once worked there by the name of Harry Roberts. It has been over 35 years since I was last in that box (it has gone now anyway and I don’t know if Harry is still alive either) but the memories of the many times spent at MJW remain clear to this day.

Railways have always held a fascination for me, but, as I could never bring myself to the stage of joining the number-takers and rivet-counters in their pursuit of excellence, I settled for signalling as a hobby, interest, pastime, call it what you will – a subject for much further study over the years, something to indulge. Time was not of importance.

Books of reference were always a problem. Until fairly recently i.e. the last 10 years or so, books on the subject of signalling were just not being published. Those that were available were difficult to find. All I had to go by those years ago in the 60’s was a copy of the Rule Book, the Block Signalling Regulations and the General, Regional and Sectional appendices – with the odd WTT (passenger and freight) thrown in for good measure. I still have them. Plus, I should add, I benefited from the patience of a number of railwaymen who took the time and trouble to pass their knowledge along.

So, for a lad keen on signalling the theory was not a problem, but how to practice the art? Well, I lived in Swansea and as my father was a Master Mariner with BP he was away for a year at a time and always at school holidays. We had relations in Manchester (aunt and uncle) and while most families would travel to the seaside for holidays, what did we do instead (mother, sister Tracy and me) – we went to Manchester! Via, I might add, the Central Wales line (but you’ve read about that before – CW Line – Bottom End). Going away from the sea, up North, for a holiday, was considered to be quite odd by my schoolmates, but, in retrospect, I rather think that I scored extra points in the end!

I achieved a basic signalling knowledge over time, on countless Saturday and holiday visits, at the signal boxes at Swansea Bay – Nos. 2 and 1, Mumbles Road and Dunvant. Solid experience in itself, but Middleton Junction West was the chance to be able to gain big-box, heavy-traffic experience. Heady stuff indeed for a mere 13 / 14-year-old! And all, I might add, totally against BR’s rules and regulations, but does that really matter any more? Harry was a friend of my aunt and uncle living in Middleton and, without further ado; I shall now get to the point and to where the action starts!

Middleton Junction West was a typical and really quite unprepossessing L & Y signal box. It was a functional piece of equipment, no more, no less, which, when built in 1882, had none (required none!) of the adornments of other lines boxes. That aside, MJW had a job to do and do it well it did for 108 years until 1990 when it was deemed of no further use, was time expired and was destroyed.

This general view of Middleton Junction was taken one (evidently) quiet Sunday in 1956. By the time of Bob’s visit, some of the layout had been remodelled, but the splendid bracket signal by the box remained up to the closure of the box. To the right of the box the Oldham line branches off, through a covered section of the station. On the far right a splendid L&Y lower quadrant four arm shunting signal stands.
Looking through the station on the main line, Middleton Junction’s signals can be seen, all in the “off” position because it is Sunday and the box is switched out.

Middleton Junction West SB
Dr J W F Scrimgeour 29/4/56

I remember it very well. Situated at the end of the Up Platform at Middleton Junction station in the vee of the branch to Oldham Werneth, it was just about 5 miles from Manchester Victoria at the beginning of the Calder Valley line. This ran on through Castleton (junction to Bury) Rochdale (through Summit tunnel [1 mile 1,125 yards and 537 ft above sea level), Todmorden, crossing the LMR / NE regional boundary just before Hebden Bridge and on to Halifax / Bradford (at Sowerby Bridge) and Leeds.

Boxes adjacent to Middleton Junction West were Vitriol Works (VW) in the Manchester direction at 702 yards; Middleton Junction East (MJE) at the other end of the Station – an incredibly short 145 yards away (MJE controlled the double line junction to the town of Middleton a mile or so away) and the junction proper, formerly to Chadderton Junction box (CJ), 410 yards distant. At a later date, after a rationalisation of the lines, the Block was through to Oldham Werneth itself (after CJ’s closure after a fire in May of 1960).

This was, perhaps, one of MJW’s (possibly its only?) claim to fame. The Werneth incline – 1 mile 1,383 yards box to box – was the steepest passenger worked railway line in Britain, with a gradient of 1:27 for about a mile. I say passenger worked because there were steeper gradients elsewhere on British Railways, but for freight traffic only. The “other” Middleton I hear you say!

The arrangement of the running lines in the area was as follows – with the Up line towards Manchester Victoria – Up and Down Main lines from Castleton East Junction, Mills Hill, Middleton Junction East, Middleton Junction West, Vitriol Works and beyond to Moston and Newton Heath. Between Mills Hill and East Junction there were Up and Down Loops and between Junction West and Vitriol Works there was an additional Down Goods and opposite an Up Slow (the Up Main between the two being renamed the Up Fast for all of 700 yards!) There was also an Up and Down Through Siding (U & DTS) telephone worked, adjacent to the Up Slow from Junction West to Vitriol, which I believe is still there today as the direct line to Chadderton goods yard.

Layout diagrams

  • Middleton Junction 1903 – as inspected by the Ministry of Transport in 1903. Regrettably the plan does not show the lever numbering, although it gives a total of 62 levers. This maybe a transcription error, and probably should read 52, in other words this plan probably shows the same lever frame that was in use when the box closed, before the additional levers were added.
  • Middleton Junction 1962

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There was a light falling gradient in the Up direction (this Up is “down” business again!) generally of +/- 1:150 – 200 but more or less level through the station. The track curved from Castleton but was dead straight from Mills Hill to Vitriol works with a curve again to Moston. The loops between Mills Hill and Jcn East don’t concern us here.

The Up and Down Branch to Werneth (previously to Chadderton Junction) had probably the biggest “Up”, Down the 1:27 incline on the whole of BR and the terminology appears at first sight to be a bit stupid were it not for the fact that lines towards a major city were always named Up. Chadderton Junction box before closure (it burned down) provided access to a single goods line of 1,097 yards to Chadderton Goods Yard, which was subsequently controlled from Junction West – One Engine in Steam etc., (with Staff?).

All running lines were Semaphore signalled, Absolute Block. The Down Goods and Up Slow were Permissive worked, with the latter only for non-passenger trains however. The reversible U & DTS was telephone worked to / from Vitriol Works. Additionally, on the Down side of the running lines was a large goods yard (complete with big L & Y freight shed) and on the Up side a number of carriage and wagon sidings.

What I have described above was the track layout in 1962/4 or thereabouts. Prior to this time a double junction had existed at Middleton Junction West from Oldham on the Werneth line, but was re-laid Up Branch / Up Slow a year or two before when the Up Branch to Up Fast connection was taken out.

It is interesting to note at this point, that Junction West signalbox had two lever frames before the changes. A frame of 52 levers facing the Mains and a small 8 lever frame at the rear of the box which controlled the Branch and crossover on the branch platform lines (platforms 3 and 4). This was removed when the noted changes to the layout were made. Therefore, MJW was not a conventional oblong box but had a bay window arrangement where the small frame was formerly located. Very neat if slightly trapezoidal! The old bay window area latterly and at the time of my visits was where the signalmen’s lockers were placed!

A picture showing the “subsidiary” frame when in use.

Middleton Junction West SB
Dr J W F Scrimgeour, 29/4/56

Junction West boasted an illuminated TC diagram whilst the adjacent boxes only had a regular line diagram with TC indicators on the Block shelf. Block instruments were of typical Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway pattern with bell plunger centered in the commutator and bells separately placed at the side. The Block Instrument for the Down Goods was a typical Permissive instrument with train counter for that line. This also had a flap showing “Absolute” as a reminder, when the Up Slow was not being worked Permissively, for passenger trains.

In addition to full Track Circuiting on the Mains, Junction West had Welwyn Control with One-Pull working, Electric Catch Handle locks etc., and you could just hear that imperceptible click, and watch the Block go to Train On Line, moments after Train Entering section was received and as the trains struck-in at the Home signals berth circuits.

Middleton Junction West Up Homes. The right-hand doll applies along the Up Fast (with Vitriol Works’ distant below) and the centre doll towards the Up Slow. The left-hand doll formerly carried a small arm reading to the Up & Down Through Sidings.

Middleton Junction West SB
John Hinson, 1989

When the layout was rationalised the frame was re-locked in the convention on the LMR at that time of having the commonly used levers being centrally placed. This meant that the Down Main running line signals – Distant (under Vitriol Works Down Home) and Home (no Starter) were numbered 26 and 27 (28 being Junction Home for the Werneth Branch). In the up direction the Up Main Home (termed along Up Fast and again no Starter) was No. 32. Numbers 36 and 37 were Up Main to Up Slow and U & DTS. A picture of this imposing bracket signal, taken by John Hinson, is shown on the right.

MJW had no less than four Up Main Distants – Nos. 33, 34, 35 and 35 motor, on the mentioned falling gradient, beneath the Homes of Junction East and Mills Hill. Very Lancashire Belt and Braces caution was this for a 1:150 / 200 stretch of line, but it was very straight! Inner Distant No. 33 was slotted under the Junction East, Up Middleton Branch to Up Main Home as well as the Up Main Inner Home protecting the junction.

Number 34 was slotted under Junction East Up Main Outer Home and Exit Home from the loop there from Mills Hill. Number 35 was under Mills Hill Starter and the 35 motor was under Mills Hill Up Home on the bracket with the entry Home for the loop – something like a mile away. This lever had an adjacent foot bracket to give the signalman, when pulling it, at least the sporting chance of getting it past “Wrong” on the repeater. The Distant from Werneth was Fixed, but would have been numbered 52 in the frame of 52 levers as mentioned, had it been connected. I hope that all this is clear?

Back on the Down side again, lever numbers 7 and 8 controlled the Down Goods with the latter the exit Down Goods Home to Down Main (in essence the Starter as there was no signal in advance). There was no access from the Goods line to the Werneth Branch though after the lines were re-laid in the late ’50’s. Finally, all the other levers operated discs, points, FPL’s with the exception of lever number 6 which was the Interlocking lever with Vitriol Works for reverse working along the U & DTS. There were four spare levers – 4, 5, 47 and 52 as mentioned and no Detonator Placing Machines. Additionally, there was a telephone on the post of signal 46 – exit from the Chadderton Sidings line to Up Werneth Branch – for drivers to call for the road to leave the sidings and TCI’s (Track Circuit Interrupters) installed on points 25 (Trap – Down Werneth Branch / Down Main) and on the siding-end of points 45 (Chadderton Sidings / Up Werneth Branch).

One final piece of trivia: the berth TC’s for the Down and Up Homes (27 and 32 etc.) were numbered 8450 and 8451 under the old LMS system of assigning numbers to Track Circuits. All other TC’s at Junction West were sequentially numbered (simply) from 1 through 10 without reference to the signal they controlled. If I recall, the LMS numbering system was to satisfy a requirement of the old Board of Trade, to prove in returns to them, that Home signals were being berth circuit protected and to keep a tally of the number actually installed countrywide.

So, there you have it. Middleton Junction West basically described (I hope) without the aid of a track diagram (for the time being). I shall leave this article at this point and come back to it later with some commentary about the actual box working and the occasion (evening) that I was there when the all terrible 6 beats came through on the Block! You see, Harry even laid that on for me! Well, not quite.

Harry later transferred down the line to Rochdale East Junction – a two man box, all 88 levers of it, and in a future article I hope to present some background too on that signalbox and some others in the vicinity of that busy station in the early 1960’s.

This continues the author’s recollections of his visits to Middleton Junction West signalbox (signalman Harry Roberts) during the period from about 1962 to 1964. The box is gone now, reduced to rubble in 1990 and only the boxes at Vitriol Works and Castleton East Junction remain today on this stretch of the Calder Valley line – and Rochdale Goods Yard next on (according to my trusty Quail map book!)

Middleton Junction West was a decidedly lopsided box, apart from its main 52 lever frame, the actual construction, to house a second small 8 lever frame at the back of the box, provided it a small bay window in the rear to look out from. Its placement in the geographical area, which it controlled, was lopsided too. It was all down at one end!

This made, for example, the checking for Tail Lamps especially difficult for Down Trains. Let me explain. The box was situated at the end of the Up platform in the vee of the Oldham Werneth line. To the right therefore there was the platform with its usual L & Y overhang. Only a small side window to the right was there – and, unlike at most boxes, there wasn’t the width of glazing that you would normally find. Now this is only conjecture, but perhaps it didn’t matter on this side of the box that you couldn’t see out – the angle was all wrong especially if you were standing back behind the frame . . . because . . .

Only-a-hardly-worth-the-effort 145 yards away, at the other end of the station, there was Middleton Junction East. At 88ft per second, for a train travelling at 60 mph, that was only 4.93 seconds for a train (the last bit anyway, with the Tail Lamp on) to pass Junction West before it got to Junction East. Hardly enough time to send a 9 (Train passed without a Tail Lamp – box in Advance) before it had passed Junction East. Right! So, it was Junction East’s job to lamp the Downs and Junction West to do the Ups. At least you could see Vitriol Works box 700 yards away on the dead straight Up line!

Middleton Junction West box, photographed in its later years. Notice the lower row of windows visible in the 1956 views have been boarded over, and few signs of the station remain. The line to Oldham branched off behind the box.

Middleton Junction West SB
John Hinson, 1989

In the late afternoon, when things started to get busy, to say that Junction West was a fast box is something of an understatement. From Mills Hill to Vitriol Works was a mile (1,752 yards to be precise). Apart from the odd second either way, a 60-mph train On Line (OL) from Mills Hill would be through three sections and Out of Section (OOS) past Vitriol Works in about a minute!

As best as I can recollect, on the Up, Mills Hill would hold the Block from Castleton South Junction (the “new” Castleton East Jcn wasn’t then open) and on receipt of Train Entering section (TES) there, would warn on for a Line Clear (LC). Castleton South Jcn was 2 miles 827 yards to the rear of Mills Hill – about 3 minutes away. LC would be obtained from Junction East, West Jcn, Vitriol Works and Moston (possibly to Newton Heath) straight through, no breaks. There was no 1-2-1 Train Approaching (TA) used to my knowledge at Vitriol Works and certainly not at Junction West. It was all as far as it would go.

905 yards from Mills Hill to Junction East, 145 yards from Junction East to Junction West, 702 yards from Junction West to Vitriol Works and a mile and an eighth to Moston. Believe me, those Up trains hammered through on a three-minute headway at times. On the Down line matters were a little slower because of the climb, but not by much! From TOL from Vitriol Works was about 25 seconds to passing Junction West plus the 5 seconds (mentioned above) to pass Junction East. Just a blink for the latter.

Moston to Vitriol Works was 1 mile 243 yards. About 68 seconds worth for a TOL from Vitriol Works at Junction West from giving LC. Only two signals on the Down Main – 27 Home and 26 Distant (Fixed on the Down Goods), but on the Up Main, with its three Distants (33, 34, 35 with the motor 35 – only three levers though as 35 m was worked off the Mills Hill home slot) it was many a time that with giving LC to Junction East and getting Line Clear from Vitriol Works, there was little point in pulling off Distant 35, especially having just passed a slower freight through just before.

Over an eight hour 2 ‘til 10 shift, say with an average of 8 or more trains per hour both ways – with two levers on the Down and four levers on the Up, that’s 384 levers pulled and reversed total in a shift. Add a bit for some point work, plus the FPL’s, say 400 lever movements – and the Blocks as well, even for a supposedly fit 14 year old I was tired at the end of the shift. But what a day.

Those Stanier 8F’s on the fast freights – with their coupling rods very own signature tune – clank-clunk-clank-clunk, the expresses with 12 on – a Black 5 or a Jubilee and past in the time it took to get those three Up Distants back. Then those slower goods, with the odd wagon brake loose from its slot – thunk-a-thunk-a-thunk-a-thunka – not worth 7 beats. But did they have a Tail Lamp? They’d better!

To be sure, when trains were running block and block Harry would help me out with the BI’s. But I remember one time I let my Central Wales (CW) signalling practice get ahead of me. On the CW line, at Mumbles Road and the other boxes on that line, TES was repeated on receipt and then TOL placed over on the BI. At Middleton Jcn. West TES (although unauthorised) was not repeated.

They were coming fast and furious on the Up and with the timing from Junction East (5 seconds) and looking at the diagram and for the berth Track Circuit (TC) to light up and waiting for the TES and to anticipating getting the Distants back, Junction East gave 2 beats (OL). The next thing, Harry was on the phone and I heard him say “I’ve got a Western man in the box today”. He turned to me smiling and said you gave him TES (to Junction East), I sort of looked blank for a moment and for the life of me could not remember repeating the TES – it was just automatic.

Because TES was not repeated at Junction West, in effect, I had given Junction East a TES for a non-existent train! No harm done, but I’m sure it got the puzzled Junction East man out of his chair faster than he’d first sat back in it! Talking of TES, obviously, and upon receipt the, BI should be turned to TOL. At Junction West, fully Track Circuited and with Welwyn Control on the Block as it was, as soon as a Home’s berth TC relay was occupied, the relay dropped (that imperceptible click) and if not turned the BI needle would go over to TOL from LC automatically.

Not a problem, it’s designed to do just that. All it meant was that when giving 2-1 (TOS) to the rear, the commutator had to be cycled through to the TOL position and back again to Normal (line blocked) before another LC could be given. The BI relay had to be allowed to pick up even though the Berth TC had already done this and was now clear on the diagram.

The interior of Middleton Junction West in 1956 – a very spartan and businesslike workplace. On the block shelf are a range of L&Y block instruments and bells, and a LNW pattern closing switch. The cast keyhole-shaped lever badges used by the L&Y were the forerunners of the LMS and BR (LM) standard plastic fittings. Abive the shelf is the track layout diagram. At this time there were few track circuits, but by the time of Bob’s visit a BR illuminated diagram had been provided to indicate the increased number provided when the layout was remodelled.

Middleton Junction West SB
Dr J W F Scrimgeour, 29/4/56

An extra safety system in place was the electric Lock on each Home signal’s lever catch. This ensured, that after the particular Main Home lever was replaced (27 [28 Main to Branch on the Down] – 32, 36 and 37 on the Up), it could not be pulled again without the berth TC being unoccupied and the BI at the Normal position. In other words, if the Home lever was not replaced for some reason, even though the TC is clear, no second LC can be given. Conversely, with the lever normal (replaced) in the frame, it can’t be pulled again without the TC first having been occupied from a previous train, then clearing itself to unoccupied, before a new LC can again be given. Cycled through, as described above, if necessary.

This is the both ways check of Welwyn Control, and One Pull Working, operating in harmony. On the front of the Block shelf, in small wooden glass fronted boxes, were the releases to operate in case of a TC failure. These should not be confused with the Welwyn release whose small handle was required to be turned to restore – about 100 times (back to where an N appears again in a small window). This is a timing release and it does take about two minutes to turn to cycle through. I tried it on the Up Branch from Werneth – and if you go past the N – yes, you go round again! Four minutes can be a long time!

What else? Ah yes! Ever the patient reader, you have been asking yourself (based on reading the previous article about Middleton Junction West) when is he going to get to it. Right? The Obstruction Danger signal, the 6 beats on the block bell! There could be many a retired signalman whose whole working life passed without being on the receiving end or sending that all dreaded signal. At about 14 years of age it happened to me. Well, Harry actually, but I was closest to the Block.

At about 9:30 one evening for whatever reason (this is 35 years ago remember) a fairly long freight was required to set back onto the Down Goods from the Down Main and from there into the goods yard. I would imagine that it had to be this way as the shunting neck was not long enough along the Down Goods to handle this movement. Anyway, the train arrives and stops forward at Junction East with the Brake Van opposite the box – Junction West box. I pull points 40 reversed, 38 likewise, disc 41 over then 43. The 39 FPL for the other end of 40 trailing may or may not have been reversed, unless the locking required it, but that is not relevant. So far, so good. Disc off, Guard signals to Driver; train starts to set back – and stops – suddenly! I’m looking out of the window. Harry is on the ‘phone.

Obviously Harry knew what had happened whilst I continued to stare out of the window. Next I heard ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding on the Block Bell – 6 beats – Obstruction Danger! Panic – what had I done! Were those points over? If I had thought for a second longer I would have realised that both 40 and 38 points must have been over properly for the discs to come off. The detection for disc 43 over points 40 would ensure that. What had transpired, apparently, was that a wagon close to the loco at the Junction East end of the train was derailed and “on t’ floor”! Such is life.

Harry repeated the 6 beats to Junction East and also sent 6 back to Vitriol Works (because the train is fouling the Down Main even though it is still in the section). I went home as it was near to 10:00pm anyway and there would be the bosses first to arrive. They would not have been amused to see me!

Mills Hill, Middleton Junction East and Middleton Junction West have all gone now. The Branch to Middleton town and the Branch to Werneth all went earlier (the latter with its famous 1:27 incline). All that remains now are Vitriol Works box (the siding to Chadderton now being controlled from there) and Castleton East Junction – the new one. To me Castleton East will always be the “new one” as I visited the old and drew the Track Diagram of the new before it was born!

I still have to this day a full size Track Diagram, an S & T Dept., Hunts Bank original of Vitriol Works which was a “spare” left (for me – I like to think) in Jcn West for some reason 35 or so years ago. Tough on BR, I’ve got it now and if they want five pounds for it I’ll gladly send it on to settle the debt. It’s strange really, those two boxes still being there and the others gone. If it had been up to me I’d have concentrated the new line signalling at Jcn West. OK. so I’m biased – so what if I am, at least there was a signalbox at Middleton Junction West which got to be 108 years of age (1882 – 1990) before being retired. The other two aren’t even pensioners yet!

After 1964 I never went back to Middleton Junction again. Harry moved on to Rochdale East Junction, which box I visited a few times and shall write about in another article. It was a bigger signalbox (88 levers, 2 man box) more traffic and more complicated, but not the same. I lost contact with Harry after that, relatives in Middleton passing. I moved on.

It is with this in mind that I dedicate this modest series of articles to Harry Roberts, Railway Signalman. The interest in the subject that he encouraged and the opportunity he provided to a young lad of 13 or 14 years or so (who is now a fifty one year old) will never be forgotten. Apart from the Rules and Regulations and the procedures (and a bit of technical stuff) all of which have to be learned, there is nothing that can describe the sound of a signal box at work, the thunk of the levers being moved and the Block bells. Ah, the Bells, a language all to their own.

Thanks to John Hinson for checking, that even after all these years, I still got it right.


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