by Bob Wright

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 signal box
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.

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.
Photograph by the late Ian Scrimgeour, courtesy Signalling Record Society Photographic Collection.

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.

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

Comments about this article should be addressed to Bob Wright