South Wales Signal Boxes
at the turn of the Century
by Roger Bailey
But not the turn of the century that you may be thinking of! This collection of photographs were taken in the late 1990s.
With the onward march of modern signalling, it is quite surprising justhow many older signal boxes can be found in South Wales. Along the main line from Paddington to Fishguard, Track Circuit Block and colour light signalling On the main Fishguard line, modern colour-light signalling extends as far west as Llanelli, but from there onwards traditional mechanical signalling principles survive. By the time Fishguard is reached, the line is really more of branch line status, the main traffic of the line petering out after Swansea.
But even before reaching the Absolute Block sections west of Llanelli, the odd box can still be found guarding level crossings, no longer of full “signal box” status but a traditional structure nevertheless. A few boxes survive just off the main line, too, maybe now isolated outposts but proper signal boxes in both function and looks.
Amongst these, too are the odd box no longer in Railtrack ownership. You might be surprised at what Roger’s roving camera has discovered.
Situated between Llantrisant and Bridgend, Pencoed box survives to control a level crossing. Although now demoted to the status of ground frame, and without levers, this c1905 cabin retains a certain charm.
Barry signal box also stars in the Photo Gallery section, and a detailed history of the cabin will be found there. The curious porch arrangement gives the box a very continental appearance.
Inside the box, it is nice to see a large lever frame with so many levers still operational – only the white levers are out of use. This is no doubt a result of the box now controlling the entire Barry area, rather than just one part of it.
The lengthy diagram shows the layout controlled from this box; in the centre can be seen the station and the junction for the short branch to Barry Island. On the block shelf are a number of plungers (which energise the electric releases on levers) and a range of signal and points repeaters.
The history of Aberthaw box is described in detail on the Photo Gallery pages, but this more recent photograph shows the curious addition of two lean-to corrugated iron sheds. Surely they weren’t provided solely to accommodate the signalman’s motorbike?
Inside can be seen the array of levers, block instruments and indicators, along with closed-circuit television equipment to control a remote level crossing, the latest model of Baby Belling cooker and a Woolworth’s swing-lid waste-bin! Adjacent cabins are Barry and Cowbridge Road.
Tucked away in a forgotten corner of Railtrack’s network is Tondu, once known as Tondu Middle. It is a Great Western box dating from 1883, and controls the convergence of two branches off the South Wales Main Line (at Bridgend and Pyle) towards Maesteg.
The unusually plain brickwork of the architecture can be explained by the renewal of the brickwork at an unknown date.
Despite the location having once been quite complex, and controlled by several boxes, the lever frame still has many points and signals and really looks quite impressive. The original lever frame had been replaced in 1957 with the one seen here, containing 65 levers.
West of Port Talbot, Llandarcy signal box survives, although reduced to ground-frame status. Until 1923 it was known as Lonlas South. The box dates from 1920, and twenty of the original forty six levers are still in use.
Roger Bailey, c2000Pantyffynnon box can be found a little way inland from Llanelli, controlling the southern end of the Central Wales line and a minor branch to Gwaun-cae-Gurwen. The box, previously Pantyffynnon South, was built by the Great Western Railway in 1892. The 49-lever frame in the box also dates back to the opening of the cabin in 1892.
Working of the Central Wales line between here and Craven Arms is by “No-signalman Token” – a variation on the normal single-line instruments that allows the token to be withdrawn by drivers at intermediate points on the line. This particular one, of course, is worked by a signalman!
Mounted on the instrument shelf is a small console to assist the signalman in planning movements over the single line between here and Craven Arms. Above is the conventional signalling plan of the local layout.
Roger Bailey, c2000
What’s this? A signal box with curtains? Glanamman signalbox closed some years ago, and is now in private ownership and appears to be used as a place of residence. It can be found alongside the Gwaun-cae-Gurwen branch, which diverges from the Central Wales line at Pantyffynnon.
The first mechanical box reached, when travelling west along the South Wales main line, is at Llanelli, although it is no longer of signal box status. It is retained as a “ground frame” to control the level crossing some distance west of the station.
The box opened around 1877 (as Llanelly No.4) making it a very early survivor of the Great Western Railway’s architecture. The box later became “West” and somewhere along the line the spelling was amended to Llanelli. Originally, the box was smaller – it was extended in 1904 to accommodate a larger frame; however this no longer survives and the few functions now controlled are worked from switches.
The box assumed its more humble role when the area became controlled by colour light signalling, worked from Port Talbot power box, in 1969.
There is little to see inside the box – a large diagram monopolises this view. To the right are closed-circuit television screens to allow a remote level crossing to also be controlled from here.
A short distance down the line from here is Pembrey, where the colour light signalling ends and true signalling starts.
Pembrey marks the end of the power signalling and track-circuit block that reigns supreme all the way from Paddington. This cabin was opened as Pembrey East around 1906 and was originally much smaller housing just 31 levers. Since then, it has had two replacement lever frames, and has been damaged by two train derailments! It currently houses an 83 lever frame dating from 1953. The absolute block system applies west of here, the next box is Kidwelly.
Kidwelly box actually dates from 1885, although this isn’t obvious at first sight because a new top portion has been provided in 1950’s style. The lever frame was removed in 1983, and all signalling here is now worked from a small panel. Nevertheless, the Absolute Block system applies to the adjacent boxes at Pembrey and Ferryside.
Just a short distance down the line from Kidwelly is Ferryside. The date of construction of the box is not known, but it is believed to be pre-1884.
Inside, we find a smart Great Western double-twist frame of 24 levers controlling the layout. Above the levers are two Great Western 1947-style block instruments, with their associated bells, to control the lines between here and the adjacent boxes. Behind is the diagram of the layout.
In the locking room, beneath the operating floor, is the interlocking that prevents the signalman setting conflicting routes. It is really a mechanical computer – the metal bars slide up and down according to which levers have been pulled, and notches on them will physically prevent certain other levers from being pulled. The original Double_Twist locking has been replaced by standard tappet locking as recently as 1996.
I spent many years wondering exactly how wire adjusters work. Wire adjusters are a means of shortening or extending the length of the wires that run out to the signals, because change in the weather can have a substantial effect on a long run of wire. On the operating floor of the box, a small wheel or capstan is provided to wind the wire in or out. The rod from this can be seen passing vertically down just left of centre in this view. This operates the large drum wheel through a worm gear (only just visible) which provides the winding mechanism. The wire then passes over a pulley on the lever tail (the near-horizontal bar, which is bolted onto the foot of the lever), then down to ground level where it will pass round another pulley and leave the box. A non-adjustable wire would be attached direct to the lever tail.
The track in front of Carmarthen Junction signal box implies that the line is closed, but this is just a siding that you see. This once important junction is controlled from this modern box dating from 1956. The cabin once controlled the area from a 78-lever frame, but a small panel now controls the functions. Adjacent boxes are Whitland to the west and Ferryside to the East.
Between Carmarthen Junction and Clarbeston Road can be found Whitland box, a modern, mechanical signal box dating from 1972. The box, controlling the junction for the branch to Pembroke Dock, contains a 39-lever frame. The box and frame came second-hand from Danygraig.
On a journey from Paddington to Fishguard, the last signalbox to be passed is at Clarbeston Road. The double-track main line has given way to single line, and traffic is light. However, the signalbox (dating from 1906) is in fine condition, and even boasts a token catcher with immaculate condition net. These are not officially used these days, but apparently the net was found in storage and refitted for nostalgia’s sake.
Inside is not quite what might be expected. A small panel, installed in 1988, controls the layout which links up with the control area of Whitland box.