Tales of Gartsherrie East Junction
by George Harrison
View a track layout of Gartsherrie East Junction (will open in new tab for reference. At the date of this diagram the box was called Gartsherrie LNE Junction.
The one-armed paper hanger
In the early 1950s shortly after completion of National Service I was appointed to Gartsherrie East Junction on the former LMS main line Perth/London, near Coatbridge, Scotland. The layout consisted of up and down AB main lines , permissive up and down branch lines to Gunnie North and a spur line into Gartsherrie Ironworks with its own private railway. It was a very enjoyable cabin to work with a variety of traffic, local passenger trains, expresses, goods trains and the odd 4-4-4 when the Firm were going to and from Balmoral.
Going from home to work each day I would walk along the down Gunnie branch to start at Gartsherrie East and as I looked ahead I used to think how easily a driver travelling in the same direction could very easily transpose the positions of the down branch home signal and the down main home signal. I thought of bringing it to the attention of the D.I. on his next visit but on second thought I may have looked somewhat ridiculous and said nothing.
Did it ever happen? Yes it did and on my shift too. That particular day I received a London/Perth express from Gartsherrie South Junction which was accepted by Garnqueen South Junction and I pulled off the sticks. I went to the TR book, made my entries, put the kettle on and looked outside to find that a goods train standing on the down branch had opened up and was approaching the junction at a fair clip.
I threw the sticks to danger against the down express for which I had just received entering section and I could see it approaching as Gartsherrie South Junction was very close to my box. I ran to the window waving a red flag like a one-armed paper hanger doing a ceiling. The very alert express driver stopped clear of the junction but the goods driver paid no attention until too late. His engine went off at the catch points, turned over on it’s side and was pushed along for a considerable distance by the sheer weight of the train.
How the driver and fireman escaped death or serious injury I do not know but thankfully they did.
Back in those 1950s the northern Scottish fishing fleet took in an abundance of fish, most of which was destined for the fish markets in London preferably next morning, which meant great haste. To accomplish this feat, fully braked high speed trains were scheduled and with top priority.
One night shift I sent a goods train on the up main line to Gartsherrie South Junction and the signalman there put it into the up slow line to clear the main line for the fish train due shortly. The crossover to the up slow was just clear of my junction and the latter train, with numerous loaded cattle cars marshalled next to the guards van, stopped with the van still trailing out onto the up main line. I cleared back the goods train and was offered the fish train by Garnqueen North, which I accepted with a clear road.
It was quite a long section as Garnqueen South box was switched out on night shift. I knew that when I got entering section, there was still about six long minutes before the fish train arrived at my home signal. I could hear those cattle a-lowing, (It was near xmas time} and I was wishing they would get a-going. The din served as a constant reminder of the three red lights glowing brightly on the main line.
Then came the entering section bells of doom and I knew that the fish train would be delayed and number one forms would be delivered early next morning.
Worse was to come. There was a long easy left hand curve on the approach to Gartsherrie East, suitably banked to allow for high speed and on the left hand side of the track was a well forested estate, which limited the view ahead somewhat. Up comes the fish train at full speed, runs through the home signal at danger,brakes on, sparks flying from every wheel and I think the engine was in reverse. The train ran two thirds of it’s length up the branch before stopping.
Back came the fireman with apologies on behalf of himself and the driver and thanking me profusely for following the rules in setting up for the branch , which I had done before clearing back the slow goods. Being a railway family the driver, fireman, guard and I, resolved not to report the incident as no harm had been done but a formidable lesson had been learned.
They backed the train out of the branch and sat at the home signal for another ten minutes or so until the slow goods got in clear. Cooling their heels at the same time.
The next couple of visits by the D.I. caused me concern as I was always waiting for him to bring the matter up, (In which case I might have brought up too) but I guess no one leaked out the information.
There will be no more special fish trains as I doubt if the fishing fleets today could catch enough edible fish in three months to make up a load, what with pollution and overfishing. We have been very poor stewards of this beautiful, small and most unique planet, in many, many ways.
This short episode concerns Heatherbell Level Crossing, located halfway between Gartsherrie East and Garnqueen South, but out of sight of Gartsherrie East. The crossing keeper is high up in a regular type signal cabin, with a clear view of the up and down main lines as well as the signals of both the aforementioned cabins. The only communication between me and the crossing is a dedicated circuit phone, but no interlocking of any sort.
The official arrangement when the crossing keeper needs permission to open the gates, is that he rings 3-3 on the circuit phone buzzer and if the way is clear the Gartsherrie East signalman acknowledges that by sending 3-3 back. When the gates are back to normal the 2-1 code is then exchanged. This arrangement stood since the building of the box without a problem ever being recorded, until that fateful when Murphy’s Law came into play again on my shift.
It was a nice bright moonlit night and I was waiting at the cabin window to do an inspection of an up fast goods. My inspection began very early in the game. The train was slowing rapidly and I noticed some extra equipment hanging from the buffer beam of the big Black Five. It had been a nice looking steam engine. Actually there was little damage to the engine but the gates were firewood.
How could such a thing have happened when I had not received a request to open the gates? It was not too long before many people were around asking the same question although no pedestrians or vehicles had been hit.
The train guard went back to place detonators to protect his train and then on up into the crossing cabin. He noted that the crossing keeper smelled strongly of an alcoholic beverage, his eyes were glazed, his speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet. The guard took charge of a part bottle of liquor he found in the cabin. Initially the crossing keeper said that I had given him permission to open the gates, but later at the enquiry he admitted being at fault. Mitigating circumstances presented by the union in the hope of saving his job were that he had gone through some horrifying experiences while in the army during the war. To no avail sorry to say.
Some of you gentlemen will be happy that this the final episode of the whole boring series which I have tried to relate in a light hearted manner but never losing sight of the fact that they were potentially very serious.
Saturdays on day shift we had special written permission to change shifts at 1pm instead of 3pm by mutual agreement without incurring any overtime. This allowed the day man to get off in time to get a bite of dinner and then off to the football match.
I am the day man in this instance and it’s now ten minutes to one. I have just pulled off the sticks for the wee local passenger train on the up main and shortly thereafter receive train entering section. Andy, my relief, walks in the door at this very instant, full of vim and vigour, loudly announcing his arrival and telling me to get away home.
In the very short meantime while I am catching up with the TR entries I hear that familiar 3-3 coming from the Heatherbell Crossing’s dedicated phone. I ignored it but Andy being very dedicated and close to that section of the block shelf, reached over the drawn levers pulled for the wee local passenger, and acknowledged the dreaded 3-3 and y’all know what that means.
Andy, normally very pale, was very white knowing that had pulled a boner or what is known today, after much research, as an anomaly. I know by this time that I am a jinx but I said to Andy that nothing would happen as the wee local would by now have passed the gates. In anticipation I hung out of the window by my heels and as I saw the wee train approach around that long curve, I recognised TINA the tank engine at it’s head. I knew it had to be TINA as THOMAS would not be seen dead wearing a large white wooden necklace around his buffer beam.
Tina’s smart Alec crew stopped in front of the box wearing sardonic LMS type wide grins and shouting “Here’s your firewood delivery signalman,come and get it.” I ignored the facetious remark thinking to myself that former GWR gentlemen would never hit a guy below the belt like that.
Then again from those infidels,” You must be running short by now. We heard your last delivery was three weeks ago.” I told them where to go in no uncertain terms and to be careful when passing here in future as we were trying for the Guinness book of wreckers. In addition it proved that Murphy’s Law never sleeps.
Andy was worried sick about losing his job since it meant that he would lose out on the railway owned house he and his family rented right next to the cabin. As they say when one door closes another opens and they offered him a platelayers position with steady day work and plenty of overtime every week end. He attended college at nights and last I heard of him he was a permanent way inspector.
I liked the idea of steady days and week end overtime and transferred to the S&T department. The jinx followed me there and even to Canada but these are not signal related incidents.