THE SIGNAL BOX

BRANCH LINES

Hadfield Signalbox

by Neil Ferguson-Lee

Being born in 1961 and therefore becoming properly aware of the railways around a decade later, I had a distinct feeling of coming in at the end of the party.

I was brought up in Disley, to the south-east of Manchester, and as a young child had already seen much to prove that the railways were in decline. My memories of steam-hauled freight on the LNW Stockport-Buxton line were faint to the point of imaginary, Guide Bridge and Stalybridge gave me memories of steam on freight services; uniformly black, dirty and neglected, while the former Midland route to St. Pancras had died before my eyes. Manchester Central, was always a quiet and melancholy place to visit; it must have been the mid-sixties, with little going on and always a diesel waiting, switched off, on one of the middle roads between platforms, while Disley (Midland) signalbox was where my father took me to watch trains. It often involved a wait but it was worth it; diesel-hauled expresses and my final memory of main line steam; an 8F whistling for me (or was it Disley tunnel?) on a down freight in 1967 or 68. I also remember being utterly, utterly, inconsolable when, in the Summer of 1968, my mother and I took school friends down to ‘The Iron Bridge’ to watch the trains and see the signal box, only to find the signals gone and the box being demolished before my eyes.

Woodhead was different. It was scary too. This busy line with electric locomotives, express passenger trains and endless freight was often seen whenever my parents took me on trips to Yorkshire. This was before the M62 and involved driving through Glossop and over Torside level crossing and into Yorkshire. It didn’t help that the Longendale Valley was a dark and dramatic place, but the fuss of many tracks, overhead wires and the near certainty that I would see something meant that the line was exciting and more than a little mysterious.

Freight train passing Hadfield
An unfitted freight passing though Hadfield in July 1979. Note the signalbox behind the first wagon, the former down platform in the middle foreground and signal HD19 (Down Home 2) overseeing events. The signal is on a bracket because it used to span the down sidings.
Photograph by Neil Ferguson-Lee

It was in 1974 that I started to take a serious interest in railways and as I knew the Woodhead line was still open to freight, it seemed like a good place to start exploring. The passenger network map showed Hadfield as the end of the line and so I persuaded my father to take me there one Summer evening.

As a down freight passed through within five minutes of arriving, I knew I was onto a good thing and so I happily, and innocently, walked up to the signalbox to ask when the next one was due. From then on I was to start an association with Hadfield signalbox which was to last over five years.

The signalman, lets call him Mr. C. to save any embarrassment, welcomed me into his world and it helped that he and my father started a rapport which led to their discussing the world and its woes while I happily busied myself with the paraphernalia of a signalbox.

Hadfield signal box
Hadfield signalbox in 1979 after receiving a curious but nonetheless attractive colour scheme of brown and cream. Note the original maroon nameplate which was new in 1966 (when corporate black and white was being introduced) and lasted until closure in 1985/6.
Photograph by Neil Ferguson-Lee

The box itself was comparatively new, having replaced Hadfield East and West signalboxes in 1966. Although there was a rash of white levers from where the goods sidings had been removed a few years earlier, it still controlled the termination of up and down goods lines from Dinting and Valehouse respectively; the two neighbouring boxes.

At the time, the Woodhead line’s signalboxes were a mixture of ancient and modern. The line had been updated to multiple aspect signalling at the time of electrification and from Manchester to Valehouse, the line was almost continuously track circuited. Beyond Valehouse, section lengths were long enough to allow boxes to have separate distant signals. Train describers were not used and the block system was used throughout. Woodhead and Dunford West signalboxes were new from the time of the opening of the new tunnel in 1954 and reflected contemporary practice; they were light, airy and of stone construction reflecting the local environment. The remaining boxes were largely original Great Central but had been modernised to cope with multiple-aspect signalling.

Hadfield, being a newcomer, was the most modern on the line and was of London Midland ‘Type 4’ design. It had a 30-lever frame with an illuminated diagram and all remaining signals were colour-light with the exception of No. 8, which controlled trains returning to Manchester from the Up platform. Beneath the diagram, the rather natty white melamine block shelf incorporated the signal repeaters which for the colour light signals. These were unusual because they repeated the actual aspect displayed, rather than the usual practice of showing either Red or an ‘Off’ indication.

Express services to Sheffield had passed just four years earlier, but the regular Manchester, Glossop, Hadfield local services terminated here. All services now used the Up platform, that on the down side had lost its buildings, footbridge and was soon to lose its platform edge copings.

Track layout diagram for Hadfield

The ‘turnbacks’, as they were known, provided an additional workload that could tax operations between the regular freight workings. Look at the track plan and you will see how I came to learn the mantra ‘Five, Six, Eight and Eighteen’ to send them back home to Manchester. They also gave your author the opportunity to travel in the cabs of every unit down to Glossop, up to Dinting and then scrounge a lift back on another. No one ever asked me for a ticket, my father never worried and every train crew was happy to give a lift to another young enthusiast, often giving him a small lesson in the workings of the railway into the bargain.

Whenever a turnback was waiting at Hadfield, the up line was blocked and so was the down when it was due to leave. Coming down from Woodhead, there was sufficient clearance from the down home signal to accept an inbound freight, but in the up direction, this was where the Up Goods line came into its own. The need had long gone to recess slow freights on the uphill slog to Woodhead to let passenger services overtake, but the presence of a set of trap points on the Up Goods allowed the signalman at Hadfield to accept an up freight almost into the station while the turnback waited in the platform. Once the turnback left, the up freight (which was often still crawling to keep some momentum) could be cleared out of the loop and off to Valehouse under clear signals. Had the loop not been there, the goods would have had to stand at Dinting, keeping the section back to Mottram No. 2 blocked and traffic backing up to Godley.

Part of the signal box diagram
“Five, Six, Eight and Eighteen!. A close-up of the west end of the diagram.
Photograph by Neil Ferguson-Lee

The down goods from Valehouse had too ceased to act as a lieby for slow-moving freights. The loop itself had two purposes, the less obvious being to house an interlaced set of sand drags, the entrance to which was controlled by the signalman at Valehouse. Any runaway diverted into the drags could rejoin the down goods about halfway along and, if still not under control, could plough into a second, dead-end set at the end of the loop.

The more conventional use for the loop was to house loaded rakes of MGR wagons waiting for a path into the exchange sidings at Mottram yard. Surprisingly, when a locomotive was sent to retrieve the wagons, it was invariably an electric, even though within six or seven miles it would be changed to diesel for the trip across Cheshire to Fidlers Ferry power station. I had no complaints though; one evening I grasped the opportunity to travel in 76056 (once named ‘Triton’) from Hadfield to Valehouse and back to bring one of these rakes on the last few miles of its journey.

Freight passing Hadfield box
“Better People to Buy From on the Down”. A rather grainy shot taken in the mid-1970s of what is probably 6M56 09:30 Scunthorpe to Monks Hall Sidings emphatically not hanging around at Hadfield. Note Up starting HD11 beyond the box with HD12 another quarter mile towards Valehouse.
Photograph by Neil Ferguson-Lee

In the mid-1970s, the Woodhead line was a busy freight railway. Trains really did run block-on-block through Hadfield and they seldom hung around in either direction. There might have been a speed limit of 60mph in force, but it didn’t seem to be universally adhered-to. Merry-go-round services to Fidlers Ferry formed a large proportion of traffic, but everything from unfitted freights to freightliners and steel flats all hurried through, with the 1,000-ton liquid oxygen tanks of BOC (‘Better People to Buy From’ - a phrase meaning nothing to anybody who wasn’t brought up in Granadaland in the 1960s or 70s) forming the highlight of an evening’s visit.

The line was also emphatically an electric railway. As we have seen, electric haulage was used in circumstances where diesel might have seemed more logical (and cost effective) and I can only remember a diesel locomotive passing through once; it was a class 24 or 25 and I have no idea where it was going from or to. In retrospect, even 40 or 50 miles between locomotive changes seems nonsensical by today’s standards.

Light electric engine passing through Hadfield
The other end of Hadfield with a light Bo-Bo (as they were called) heading eastwards. Note the crossover between up and down in the foreground and the Up Goods to the right.
Photograph by Neil Ferguson-Lee

Most of my visits were on weekday nights after school and in retrospect, my father showed real devotion to his train-mad son, going out for two or three hours when he had often driven half way across the country for his own job. Evenings always seemed to be busy times, Fridays especially so.

Weekends were, however, a different story. There was no freight traffic whatsoever on a Saturday afternoon (there might have been the odd one in the morning but I never made it at that time), with only the turnbacks to break the monotony. Valehouse was switched-out at weekends and the section ran from Hadfield to Torside (for the level crossing) and then, I think, right through to Dunford West.

Sundays were dead with even Hadfield switched-out. During the mid-to-late 1970s and indeed into the line’s last months, Woodhead was used as a Sunday diversionary route while heavy engineering works took place in Totley Tunnel. But even then, the frequency was insufficient to warrant opening any of the intermediate boxes.

The Woodhead line’s demise is well-known and still painful to those of us knew it in busier times. To my eyes, the line stayed busy until 1979 but the steelworkers strike of 1980 killed-off a whole flow of traffic which just never returned, while in the depths of the early 1980s recession, a duplicate freight-only route in need of re-electrification seemed easy prey. Forget the strategic value, forget asset status, forget network potential. When times are tough, cash is king.

I probably last visited Hadfield signalbox as a guest in the late summer of 1979. It wasn’t consciously my last visit, but student days were beckoning and my mind found other diversions. The final visit came on Saturday, 1st December 1984; a date familiar to students of the line as it was the weekend when the 1500 Volt supply was switched-off to make way for 25Kv the next weekend. It was strange to visit that weekend, as my friend in the box had moved on, probably retired, and its sole purpose for the preceding 3½ years had been to turn-back the turnbacks. Signal 11 still shone red at the end of the platform, as did No. 12 further down the line to Valehouse, but red was all that was on offer since the last through freight had run in June 1981.

Hadfield signalbox probably succumbed to the demolition man in 1985. The line from Dinting was rationalised to just a single track and Dinting took control of the furthest reaches of the western portion of the line at that time. Visiting Dinting signalbox in 1995, I noticed that the line beyond Hadfield still existed on the diagram as an engineers siding which had actually vanished by 1988. I walked the line in 1986 and at that time, the tracks were intact to the east of Valehouse and, ironically, were in a better condition than many operational lines. Don’t get me started.

Hadfield was an invisible signalbox. Take a look at any books illustrating the Woodhead route and see how many pictures there are of the box. Of Woodhead, Torside, Dinting, Gorton and the complexes at Godley and Guide Bridge there are plenty, but of Hadfield there are hardly any. It’s probably because by the time the box was built, attention had turned to the more exotic territory to the east of Hadfield, so it was squeezed out between the grandeur of the Longendale Valley and the hectic activity to the west. But for me, Hadfield was a fine box to visit, where freight and passenger traffic still rubbed shoulders, the menacing gloom of the Longendale Valley (did the sun ever shine there?) hung over the hi-tech electrification gantries of the line running dead straight to the east, while inside an air of quiet efficiency was mixed with a warm welcome. For me, Heaven is a warm summers evening at Hadfield.

Neil Ferguson-Lee July 2002

Track layout drawing provided by D Raftsman

Comments about this article should be addressed to Neil Ferguson-Lee