THE SIGNAL BOX

BRANCH LINES

SAY GOOD MORNING TO BROAD STREET
The signalling that once existed on the approaches to the North London Railway's City terminus

by John Hinson

Chapter 2 : Skinner Street and the terminus

Skinner Street Junction

The line twists left again on the final approach to Broad Street, and on the left is Skinner Street Junction, the largest and most important box on the North London Railway. The first box here opened in 1865, but it is doubtful if that was the eighty lever box that was found here in later years. The box is certainly recorded as "re-sited to the north" in 1875/6. The box had a flat roof, which is unusual for a box that clearly dated back to the early 1900s, if not earlier. Perhaps it was a replacement after a windy night, or fire damage.

Should the signalmen have had time (which is doubtful) there was a splendid view from the rear of the box looking down on the Great Eastern's Liverpool Street station, which was set at ground level.

A glance at Skinner Street Junction's track layout would probably make you wonder why I describe the box as "most important" for, apart from a ladder crossing forming a duplicate set of connections towards Broad Street Goods to those at New Inn Yard, there seems to be precious little track layout. However, the box's function was to regulate the platforms ("bays") at Broad Street, using special "Platform Block" Instruments to Broad Street No.1 and 2 boxes. These instruments have survived and are part of the York Railway Museum collection although not on general display.

The special instruments used between Skinner Street Junction and the Broad Street cabins.
This one is the instrument that was in Skinner Street signalling trains in and out of platforms 1 to 4.
This instrument is now part of the National Railway Museum's collection at York, but is not normally on public display.

North London Railway platform blocks from Skinner Street Junction

The operation of these instruments is described on the signalman's instructions from Broad Street No.2 box:-

A special telegraph communication is established between Skinner street Junction box and this box. The signalman at Skinner Street Junction will, before admitting any train into the station, signal it forward on the particular bay line instrument, and obtain a reply that the bay into which the train should run is clear.

The normal position of the telegraph indicators is "Line Blocked".

When the bays are blocked and it is necessary to bring a light engine or 3-car electric train from Skinner Street Junction, the station inspector must be advised when the engine or train is signalled, and he must go or send a responsible man to bring the engine or train into the bay with caution.

The bell code must not be acknowledged for the train until the inspector or person detailed has joined the engine or motor compartment.

When the time has nearly arrived for a train to leave the station, the signalman at this box must signal the train in the usual manner to the signalman at Skinner Street Junction, and on receiving the "Line Clear" indication take off the signal for the train to leave the station.

Regulation 3-The following special "Is Line Clear?" signals will be used between Skinner Street Junction and Broad Street No.2 box for Up and Down trains:-

To and from No.5 Bay 4
To and from No.6 Bay 2
To and from No.7 Bay 3
To and from No.8 Bay 5
To and from No.9 Bay 2-2
From No.2 Down Line to No.1 Down Line 1-2

Regulation 4-The Bell Codes shown above must not be acknowledged unless the line is clear to the buffer stops, except for a light engine or 3-car electric train which may be accepted when vehicles are standing in the Bay line when the instructions shown below have been carried out.

Regulation 10-After an Up train has arrived in the Bay, one beat on the bell must be given and the indicator moved to the "Line Blocked" position.

The corresponding bell signals on Broad Street No.1's instructions were as follows:

Regulation 3-The following special "Is Line Clear?" signals will be used between Skinner Street Junction and Broad Street No.1 box for Up and Down trains:-

To and from No.1 Bay 4
To and from No.2 Bay 2
To and from No.3 Bay 3
To and from No.4 Bay 5
From No.2 Up to No.3 Bay 3-3
From No.2 Up to No.4 Bay 4-4

It is curious that the admission of a train into an occupied platform was treated with such paranoia. The arrangement was, perhaps, to afford some safety in the famous London smog.

The remaining levers at Skinner Street Junction controlled a plethora of slots on adjacent box's signals, including individual slots on each departure signal from the station.

In the other direction, the standard block of the North London Railway was in use - the Pryce & Ferreira three position block. Little is known about what made these so different that British railways carried out complete replacement along the line in the late 'fifties. The only feature that has been "passed down" from older staff is that the bell plunger (in the centre of the commutator) had to be held in on the last beat of any bell signal in order to release and turn the commutator. It is also said that the North London Railway did not use conventional Is Line Clear? bell signals, using codes to indicate the destinations of freight trains instead. This is quite reasonable, because the relative speeds of freight trains on this low speed railway would be of no relevance. Skinner Street Junction also closed in 1970.

The Pryce & Ferreira block instrument, as once used extensively along the North London Railway.
The one illustrated here is now owned by the National Railway Museum at York, although not on general display.
It came from Skinner Street Junction box, working the No.2 lines between there and New Inn Yard.

Pryce & Ferreira block instrument from Skinner Street Junction

Broad Street

The last two boxes that our motorman passes, as he rolls into Broad Street station, are Broad Street No.1 (on the left) and No.2 (on the right). Right at the platform ends are the departure signals, which once had "bow-tie" shunt signals below, whilst on the back of the same posts (facing our driver) are signals governing access to the platforms.

Broad Street No1, with its 75 lever frame, only dated from 1891, and must in later years have been a quiet box to work, seeing only the peak-hour trains to the Great Northern. Some of these were still locomotive hauled (with non-corridor stock) in the late sixties, whilst others were worked by the constantly vibrrrrrating Craven DMUs. I can recall that three light engines coupled were dispatched from Finsbury Park to Broad Street each weekday afternoon, usually consisting of two Brush Type 2 locomotives and a Baby Deltic.

But the box must have been very busy at one time, as the 1929 Signalmen's Instructions read:-

SIGNALMEN'S DUTIES

The head signalman will be responsible for the entire working of the box, and when the porter signalman is on duty will attend to the block instruments and Up line signal levers. The porter signalman will work the Down signal levers and points to and from the engine pits.

Regulation 26-The signalman at this box need only book exceptional circumstances and delays.

No.1 box closed in 1969. No.2 box was the older of the two, dating from 1876, although not the earliest box here by any means. It controlled platforms 5 to 8 from a seventy lever Stevens & Sons frame, the last non-standard frame to survive on the line. This frame appeared to have had a three lever extension made at the left hand end at some time (which also required a northward extension to the box) but I cannot trace these levers as ever having been used and they may only ever have existed as spaces in the frame.

A ninth platform was provided in 1913, but this was outside the main shell of the station with its over-all roof and was distinctly bare-looking with its wooden decking. However, it did command an interesting view of Broad Street Goods which even as late as 1969 warranted its own shunt engine and I have a rather poor box-brownie photograph one Saturday lunchtime of an English Electric Type 1 locomotive (which had arrived on a trip) and the shunt engine both at work. The Goods Yard was at viaduct level, and there were hoists on each siding to lower the wagons down to street level. Below, there was another network of lines, where wagons would be man-handled to a convenient position for transhipment.

Both boxes basically acted as Shunting Frames (using modern phraseology) as Skinner Street Junction box made the decisions on the platforming and signalled the train on the appropriate block instrument to tell the Broad Street men where to route them. Signals between both boxes were individually slotted, too, which seems excessive given the provision of the special instruments.

No.2 box did not have the luxury of an extra signalman at peak times, but of course there was far less work involved in dealing with electric units than for locomotive hauled trains.

At Broad Street, a "scissors" or "bow-tie" signal used to be provided beneath each platform starter which, according to the NLR Appendix, were used as follows:-

SHUNT-OUT SIGNALS

 

These signals are provided at the undermentioned places, and when lowered at night exhibit a green light (less in size than the usual light), but when at danger no light is visible:-

Broad Street Passenger Station.-

Authorise engines from No.1, 2, 3, and 4 bays to shunt out as far as Broad Street No.1 signal cabin, and from No.5, 6, 7 and 8 bays to shunt out to the ground disc stop signal situated about 40 yards in advance of trailing points on No.2 down line, and fixed between down line and goods yard.


Another interesting feature included in the NLR appendix was:-

WORKING IN AND OUT OF BAYS

In ordinary circumstances the following is the train working:-

When a signal is lowered at Skinner Street Junction for a train to enter a bay at Broad Street Station which it is not booked to run into, the driver must challenge such signal by opening the engine whistle and bring his train to a stand.

If after whistling and coming to a stand, the signal is still not altered, enginemen and guards must be prepared to enter the bay for which the signal is off.

The No.1 lines were abolished between Broad Street and Dalston Junction in 1968. When the station's signalling was rationalised in 1970, No.2 box was the lucky survivor, and the only one I was privileged to work as a relief signalman in the 'eighties. Working the Stevens' frame with its different stroke lengths of the levers (short stroke for points, long for signals and Facing Point locks, further confused by two push-pull levers (which were by then out of use) certainly contrasted with the North London stirrup frames found elsewhere on the line.

Broad Strret No.2 signal box
Broad Street No.2 box, on the end of platform 9. Notice the signal right outside the window, where conversations with the lampman used to take place.

By the time I worked there, the entire goods yard area had been cleared of viaduct, and the land below used as a car park - at exorbitant fees if the kind of car to be found there was anything to go by. One had to remember not to empty the teapot out of the back window.

The only accessible front window, for gawping at trains or shouting at drivers had, for some stupid reason, a fire extinguisher mounted on the wall below it. I always used to lift it off its bracket (to avoid it giving me a pain in a nasty place) and place it on the floor nearby. The reason I mention this will be explained shortly.

Outside this signal, within touching distance, was the Platform 5 (originally platform 8) starting signal. You never had to flag a train past this one during failure conditions - you could just hold the arm up! It could also cause amusement when the voice of the lampman would boom forth when you lest expected it and thought you were alone.

Inside Broad Street No.2 box
Inside Broad Street box, showing the Stevens & Sons frame that survived to be the last of its type on the North London Railway's lines by many years. At the "business-end" of the frame (in later years most of the levers at the high end were out of use) stands an odd character of a Relief Signalman by the name of John Hinson.

For some reason, Broad Street No.2 seemed well supplied with mice. They used to travel around in the cable ducting, often you could hear their feet scrabbling, and occasionally they would scream loudly - perhaps that was a stand off when two met in a cable duct. I presume they made their way up from ground level through the ducts, too. You would see one show its face at floor level, only to disappear again and reappear on the block shelf.

Perhaps it was one great game with them, I don't know, but nobody ever seemed bothered by them.

One day, when I was sitting quietly in the corner for a few minutes, I noticed a mouse masking his way along the floor by the front wall, behind the levers, nosing around. As he made his way around he came upon the fire extinguisher which I had placed on the floor, and skirted round it. As it was nearly going out of view under my chair, I shifted slightly to watch its progress.

Hearing the noise of my movement, the mouse looked up at me. AAaaaagh! Human! Must get away from here! It turned on the spot and ran off back towards where it came from. But it forgot one thing in its haste. "Bong" - it crashed into the fire extinguisher and must have gained a considerable bruise in the process. It turned and gave me a filthy look - "Did you put that there?" and ran off.

Another view taken inside No.2 box
This view shows clearly the provision for three additional levers at the left-hand end of the frame for which the box was enlarged although it is believed they were never brought into use.

The run-down of Broad Street had started long before I worked there, but for a while it lived a steady existence with a twenty minute frequency of Richmond three-car "motors", with an additional half-hourly peak hour service to Watford. The box hours were 0445 to 2340, with a later start on Sundays. The Sunday afternoon turn was incorporated in the Dalston Junction box roster which otherwise had no Sunday work.

The land at Broad Street was obviously of high value, but nobody believed the rumours that it would close, because things like that just didn't happen. But eventually a scheme was hatched where a new line would be built at Hackney to allow the Watford service to run into Liverpool Street, and electrification to North Woolwich allowed the Richmond trains to be diverted there. These changes were political, and effected no improvement to the service. Together with the elimination of not calling at certain stations ("to avoid confusion") of the Watford service, it became such a slow and dreary trip that people found quicker ways to reach the city.

After a few years, the Watford service dwindled to one train a day that was usually cancelled, and eventually was withdrawn. The Woolwich service, which replaced rrrrattly Craven DMUs, has at least enjoyed more success but users of the line have to change trains at Highbury or Stratford to reach the City. Anyway, so desperate were the developers to create their "Broadgate" complex on the Broad Street site that they had already started before the Watford service could be diverted to Liverpool Street.

For the last few months, trains terminated at temporary platform north of the old station, with the buffer stops perched at the top of a precipice looking down on the building site below. The station and box finally closed in 1989 (I think!), and there is no trace to be found there now. Much of the route to Dalston, being on viaduct, still survives, and there are even plans to run Underground trains along it. How politics change!

Track layout plans for Broad Street No1, No2 and Skinner Street will be found at the Track Layout Plans page.

Epilogue

A short while before Broad Street station closed, some night filming was carried out in connection with Paul McCartney's film "Give my regards to Broad Street" which was a play on words with the Broadway musical. They later returned for a retake of a scene, spending hours on a summer night hosing down the platforms to ensure they were as damp as the original sequence.

< Return to chapter 1

Comments about this article should be addressed to John Hinson

Comments aboput this article should be addressed to John Hinson