THE SIGNAL BOX
I was sending off my month-end report to the Companys offices in the US late one evening (which was a file [zipped] of some 2.75 meg) and sitting there staring into space watching the blue bar drag itself across the screen, eyes focussed at a point where the cables come in to the back of the unit - much like watching paint dry or moss grow, when it crossed my mind about a remark John Hinson had made before in a message - to wit . . .
. . . But you wouldn't like doing what I do. Button pressing isn't the same, you know.
I got to thinking - maybe it is, maybe it isn't, I can't really say (well I can I suppose) - but to me a signalbox is a signalbox. For whatever reason, the button pressing he remarked about (probably the computer keyboard) triggered the memory of the day I visited Manchester Victoria East Jcn., so many, many years ago ('64). They didn't have buttons there. They had bloody big switches lad, good, solid, Lancashire, by goom switches - yards (well feet anyway, perhaps a good 25 ft plus was the length of the panel?), triple and quadruple banked switches, which would have put those of another boxs Belling food warmer to shame! And even if they weren't ceramic, I wouldn't knock it! It was One Control Switch (OCS) lad, 'lectric (and damned proud of it they were too) which, at the time, was something out of a science fiction magazine to me. Built brand new in 1962 and only two years old, state-of-the-art, 1955 Modernisation plan stuff. And I was standing in front of it!
Photograph 12/76, by Peter Whatley
I recall the day clearly. Harry Roberts, a signalman at Middleton Junction West and family friend (MJW was 5 miles down the line) had fixed it up for me to visit on a morning. I was to be at Hunts Bank and the box by, I suppose, 10:00 or 10:30 a.m. and to find Inspector (?) - it is a pity, but I can't remember his name or that of the one of about five or six signalman there at the time, whom Harry knew well, and who I was to find to be my guide that morning.
Anyway, I arrived, found the Inspector I was to contact first and was duly shown up to the operating floor to meet everybody. For a lad, 14 years old or thereabouts, whose basic (only) signalling experience was at a 16 lever box on a dreamy backwater mainline / branch in Swansea, but otherwise latterly MJW, to get to visit a Power Box, was just out of sight, so to speak. The entrance to the floor up the stairs was behind the panel, which rose, it seemed, almost to the ceiling. The pictures that you see today just don't do it justice. This was the Box Diagram to end all box diagrams. Big is an understatement. You could stand back from it 20 ft or so, at the windows, and still see every Route and Track Circuit light up. Coming on to the operating floor, round the corner - it was just there!
The signalman whom I was to meet duly gave me the cooks tour, not at all patronising but in a way you knew that Harry had told him he (me) knew a bit about signalling - albeit mechanical. Nothing was too much trouble - and at that time it was a *Busy* box, as you can well imagine. He called up Harry at MJW on the telephone circuit through Control and Harry asked what I thought of it all. I can't remember my reply - something between a stammer and a gulp I suppose. Truthfully, it was awe-inspiring for a young lad.
His post was at the left end of the panel - where I sort of parked. This was the East (obviously) Station end and Victoria West interface for platforms 11 to 16 and the Up and Down Through lines. The Block Bells were built into the panel - about six or seven I believe, no less, for the Platforms and Through lines. The right side of the panel, to Cheetham Hill Jcn., on the Manchester Loop, Collyhurst St. on the incline up to Miles Platting, and through the tunnel up to Irk Valley Jcn., had a system of Train Describers that I was shown, but I didn't really register them (no pun intended). My side was the TC Block (Bells) side. I say TCB - I'm not sure if it was Absolute with Block Indicators or not. I cant remember! But I do recall that the bells were not overly loud.
The order of the station lines signalled (from left of panel) with Victoria West Jcn., (Deal Street signal box being further to the West again) and looking (imagining) the diagram and working upwards by line, was as follows.
At the South side of the station were the Bay Platforms numbered, from bottom up, 1 to 10. All of them three tracked with centre sidings, making a total of 14 lines in all. At the stops they backed onto a long (wide) platform concourse providing access to each. These platforms were for the Bury Electrics and the suburban services to Oldham, Rochdale, Stalybridge etc., or trains terminating or starting out from Victoria. All were island platforms, single faced. Traffic usage, generally, was as follows:
|Platforms 1 and 2||- Bury, Bacup and Accrington routed via Moston|
|Platforms 3 and 4||- Oldham and Rochdale lines|
|Platforms 5 and 6||- Stalybridge route|
|Platforms 7 and 8||- irregularly used|
|Platforms 9 and 10||- for Parcels traffic|
Next above these was the famous Down Through Platform - No.11 which connected between Victoria and Exchange stations and which was the second longest platform in the world in its day at 2,238 ft. (the longest was somewhere in India?). Above this, and through the centre of the station to West Junction, were the Up and Down Through Mains, a through siding (No. 6 - numbers 1 to 5 were in the Bays), Up and Down (bi-directional) platforms 12, 13 and 14 and Up Platforms 15 and 16. There were additional sidings numbers 7, 8 and 9, with the latter in front of the box.
Without a diagram it is difficult to visualise the lines arrangement and the various routes available throughout, but to the East there were three main routes. This is something of a simplification, as through an arrangement of tunnels and flyovers beyond, a number of alternate routes could be worked quite efficiently.
The fringe boxes with Victoria East Jcn., and associated routes and running lines, were as follows. Victoria East to Cheetham Hill Jcn., consisted of four lines - Up and Down Fast and Slow on a shallow climb at 1:151. At Cheetham Hill Jcn., the left spur was the Up and Down Branch to Queens Road with an additional Down goods alongside. The main lines through and under the viaduct there were for the Manchester Loop line to Smedley Viaduct (Up and Down Fast and Slow) which continued on to Monsall Lane, Thorpes Bridge Jcn., and Newton Heath. Access to all of these lines, either worked in the proper direction or reversed, could be gained from Platforms 11 to 16 and Sidings 6 to 9 - i.e. they were not accessible from Platforms 1 to 10 or Sidings 1 to 5 from this particular point.
The other main route was up the incline to Collyhurst St., and onwards to the junction at Miles Platting which, further on, reconnected with the Manchester Loop at Newton Heath. By way of a note, the main locomotive depot for this area was located at Newton Heath (26A) and there were extensive carriage sidings at Red Bank (Cheetham Hill) and Newtown on the line to Collyhurst St. Collyhurst St. signal box is gone now but Brewery Sidings, I think, still exists a bit further on up the line (near the former connection with Oldham Road goods yard) and to a Porta Box contraption at Miles Platting / Newton Heath. To me, remembering a video of a journey past the box, it looks like a shipping container, stacked on another, with side windows cut out. One assumes that it is warm in winter though and does not leak, further, it being an alien environment for mice! John H please note!
But to continue. At Victoria East (working back down the track diagram) Bay Platforms 6 to 10 and Sidings 4 and 5 could access the Collyhurst Line through the Up and Down Local and the "Bury Electrics" from Platforms 1 to 5 and Sidings 1 to 3, from the Up and Down Electrics. The Electrics remained separated whilst the Up and Down Local lines joined the Slow lines adjacent to the Fasts, further on up. Additionally, the Slows could join the Electrics but not vice-versa other than at the station throat.
If the reader is still with me so far, the Electrics continued on their exclusive line through a tunnel (under the Collyhurst lines) and climbed up to Irk Valley Junction where the box there was perched high up on the sidewall of a brick viaduct. Irk Valley had a non-electric spur to the right (Up and Down) to Smedley Viaduct, there reconnecting with the Manchester Loop line (from Cheetham Hill), whilst the Mains continued straight on, overhead the Loop lines via Cheetham Hill flyover, to Queens Road to rejoin with the branch from Cheetham Hill. I trust that this is abundantly clear without a diagram!
Photograph and notes by Brian Robertson
An interesting fact about the infamous River Irk (as in Irk Valley Jcn.) is that it runs to this day underneath Victoria station in its own culvert constructed in 1898 or thereabouts, when the station was expanded, and somewhere below platforms 2 and 3. The source of the River Irk is out beyond Oldham, up in the moors and in its travels passes through Middleton Junction on its way South.
To visualise further at Victoria East Junction, it follows therefore, whilst at the throat of the station junction not all lines from the Bays through to Platform 16 could reach the outer approaches directly, they could, however, by various crossings on (over) the mains, the flyover at Cheetham Hill, the Tunnel under Collyhurst to Irk Valley, at Smedley Viaduct and at Queens Road, eventually find their way through. An inspectors / controllers dream come true in the alternate routing of traffic. The Electrics would stay on their own line throughout though.
What could be confusing to the uninitiated, is that the Up line became the Down line between Victoria East and West boxes and through the station. Whereas, to the East, the Up direction was in a direction towards Victoria Station albeit "Down" the incline. The Downs went up, the Ups went down literally. Also, the Down Fast and Slow lines, which went considerably "Up" hill to Collyhurst St., and Miles Platting, had no less than two sets of catch points placed a short distance apart quite a steep climb at 1:59 at the start and 1:47 further on.
All of the fringe boxes for Victoria East Junction mentioned (except Victoria West Jcn.) had conventional mechanical L & Y lever frames and were semaphore signalled under the Track Circuit / Absolute Block Systems, albeit with the partial use of a type of train describer in some cases! Also, the entire running line signals controlled from East Junction both 3 and 4 aspect (MAS) had white diamond (TC) rule 55 exempt plates affixed. This would be considered superfluous today with full track circuiting then as now.
Photograph 1988, by Tracey Phantom, courtesy David Clegg.
I spent a good 2 or 3 hours at Victoria East that day just absolutely absorbed by the action, which was, after all, just another working day on the railway for the staff. I was accepted by everybody there Signalmen, Supervisor, Inspector, not so much as a gawker (I probably did quite a bit of that) but as an interested person (keen I believe the expression would have been) who asked questions and got good (unpatronising) solid, sensible replies. I shall never forget the experience. I was shown how the routes were set up, the intricacies and differences of OCS, and, of course, the general working and operation of a very busy *new age* signal box. There was a variety of different types of traffic - naturally much steam hauled passenger and through freight workings. The electrics on the Bury side plus DMU suburban sets to and from the Bays, others steam hauled - and the bell codes for all, fortunately, were not a mystery to me!
I went back to Middleton Junction in the afternoon by train, of course - could one imagine not, and walked from there back up to the town itself where I was staying on holiday with my aunt and uncle. It was after two p.m. and Harry had gone home from Junction West box by then. If I recall, I had one more visit to MJW that trip and then back to my hometown of Swansea.
In retrospect I kick myself. That - I didn't have a camera with me (I didn't then own one), I didn't make any notes (it never occurred to me) as for sure there would be another visit again in the future (wrong!) and I didn't draw the line diagram at the time (but I still have the BR print of it which is far better than anything I could have drawn myself). But, perhaps, the greatest pity of it all is that I can't remember the names of the people who were very kind to me that day and made the visit so memorable - they're probably dead now, but that shouldn't make any difference. A further pity of it all too, is the thought of what that truly magnificent diagram must look like today. Hacked to bits I would guess. Pieces of pathetic sticking tape all over it, blanking out the lines that are gone forever. Blanked over holes in the panel for switches of former routes that can now only be imagined. Bells, what bells probably have those wretched describers to West Junction now? What a terrible shame.
So, I wrote to John, "there is button pushing and switch turning. I can differentiate between the two, just, although my limit of knowledge of NX panels is through books only. So, I don't know about the former, but the latter - OCS - been there, done that, and don't mind admitting that I enjoyed every minute of it! I *can* see that diagram still, some 35 years further on! Never mind the lottery . . . now if I could only turn the clock back . . . "
Additional notes provided by Peter Whatley.
Comments about this article should be addressed to Bob Wright