A preserved signal box in Western Australia

by Chris French

About the cabin Train crash Restoration Activities Visiting Claremont Volunteers wanted

A little about Claremont cabin

Claremont Cabin is situated midway between the Indian Ocean port of Fremantle and Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

The 1906 built Cabin, is the only surviving, operating, traditional all-lever signal box still in its original location in the Perth metropolitan area. This classic Western Australian Government Railways signal box is only accessible via the footbridge and is above the island platform at the Claremont railway station.

Claremont signal cabin
Claremont signal box in 1993. Photograph © Chris French

Claremont Cabin was opened to traffic on the 14th of October 1906. It replaced a smaller, ground level cabin on the Fremantle end of the Up platform. Fitted with a 37-lever McKenzie & Holland No. 9 Pattern lever frame, extra levers were added over the years as the station's importance grew. Today, the cabin still boasts its full compliment of 45 levers, unfortunately there are many 'spares' brought about by track rationalisations during the last few years of the cabin's working life. The Claremont cabin group is steadily working towards rectifying this situation. Parts have been manufactured with the aim of bringing back into use some of the interlocking which has been removed, thereby taking the cabin 'back in time' to a busier era.

Inside Claremont cabin
The interior of Claremont cabin. Photograph © Chris French

Note 1: Sharp-eyed viewers will notice the coloured bands around the the base of some of the lever handles. These are the 'spare' levers destined to be 'brought back' in stage one of the re-equipment of the mechanical interlocking.

Note 2: The lever handles are currently painted silver in line with WAGR policy at the time for cabins that were in irregular use, as there was no built in lever cleaner (aka the Signalmen).

When the cabin opened, the double line between Perth and Fremantle was being worked under two-position block regulations using Winter's instruments. In December 1906 Sykes 'Lock and Block' was introduced between Fremantle and Claremont. Progressively, the various other sections between Claremont and Perth were changed over to Sykes working. This remained until it too was supersceded by 3-aspect 'searchlight' colour-light signalling in 1962. Upon the electrification of the suburban system, the line was resignalled. In 1990, Claremont, along with many other metropolitan cabins were rendered obsolete. The introduction of a computer-controlled Multiple Aspect Signalling system (3 aspect - 3 light type), operated from a train control centre in the Westrail Centre in East Perth, sounded the death-knell for traditional lever signalling in Western Australia.

When the Claremont Cabin finally closed in 1990 it had enjoyed an operational life span of 84 years.

Railway accident - 12th September 1944



Accident Follows Tragedy

A train smash which occurred at Claremont about 1.30 am yesterday was preceded and attended by a remarkable chain of circumstances which commenced with the tragic death of a railway fireman and terminated with a section of a Garratt engine being suspended across the Davies-road subway, Claremont, parallel to the permanent way.

According to a police report a Fremantle-bound wheat train, drawn by an Australian standard Garratt engine had occasion to stop on the Perth side of the Karrakatta station, at 12.26 am. The fireman, a married man of Forrest-street, East Fremantle, alighted on the right-hand side of the engine and was struck by a Perth-bound train. Badly injured, he was taken on in the cab of the engine to the Karrakatta station, from where he was conveyed in a St John ambulance to the Perth Hospital, where he was found to be dead.

The wheat train then proceeded on its way to Fremantle. At Claremont the signals were set against the train for the purpose of diverting it from the main line on to what is called the back road, a line which ends with a dead end, about 20 yards on the station side of the Davies-road subway.

It is believed that the driver, working the engine single-handed, was under the impression that his train was still on the main line to Fremantle. The engine, which weighs 119 tons when loaded with water and coal, and drawing a line of wheat-laden trucks which aggregated 790 tons, crashed through the dead end, traversed the top of the embankment for about 20 yards, and jumped about 22 feet across the subway, the bunker end, which was foremost, penetrating the wall on the opposite side, leaving that section suspended about 18 feet above the roadway. The engine-driver, beyond a severe shaking, was uninjured.

Train smash at Claremont
Photograph courtesy of the late J. Stanbridge © from his book "70 Years of Rails and Wire in Western Australia."

The engine, which is one of the largest in use in this State, is 85 feet in length. Of the long line of trucks eight were damaged, six of them badly, and some were telescoped. Bulk wheat was spilt in considerable quantities. The permanent way was damaged.

The interference with the scheduled traffic between Perth and Fremantle consisted of slight delays of passenger trains early yesterday. Care was exercised in crossing over the damaged subway by reducing speed.

Railway Department officials commenced a preliminary inquiry at the scenes of the accidents yesterday.

The news of the train smash spread rapidly in the Claremont and adjoining districts and when Sgt Campbell and P.C. Waterman, of Claremont, attended at 7 am to direct traffic and keep people from passing through the subway, groups of onlookers had already arrived on the scene.

Throughout the day hundreds of people, who came on foot, in cars, trucks and service vehicles of all sorts, watched the railway staff cleaning up the wreckage.

Onlookers marvelled at the manner in which the bunker on the engine was held by the brickwork on the Cottesloe side of the subway was closely examined by crowds, who also watched the building of wooden supports under the suspended portions of the engine. They were interested to know that the breakdown gang called this "pig-stying."

Further back towards the Claremont station, gangs of men repaired the line, on which the breakdown train and its crane moved a few yards. The crane then lifted a damaged truck and swung it clear, more track was fixed up and the next truck moved out of the way. The task of moving the engine should be put in hand today.

By 4 pm a considerable crowd had gathered, apparently including every child in Claremont and the neighbourhood and most of the adults who could get to the scene. During the afternoon a barrier was erected to give the workmen a clear area.

Saving and restoring the cabin

The cabin was saved from impending demolition by community action, and the efforts of local historians. The much valued, and on-going support of the Town of Claremont, Claremont Museum, and the Claremont Heritage Advisory Committee, were crucial to preserving the cabin. Funds were raised, and a full structural refurbishment program for the cabin was started. Next, an interpretational programme was initiated by the Claremont Museum. The endeavour is to portray the classic W.A.G.R. Signalman's working environment so that current, and future generations do not loose sight completely, of a part of railway history already abandoned in Western Australia's modern railway practice. Thanks to ex-railwaymen, the accuracy of the restoration of the cabin is being ensured. Already, the cabin has had it's electrical, and electro-mechanical interlocking re-established. Trains can be simulated on the illuminated diagram, and the movement of these effect the cabin's signal repeater lights exactly as they did in the cabin's last 28 years of operation. In this regard, the Cabin Group is very fortunate in having the guidance of former Westrail employees who worked as Signalmen, Safeworking Inspectors and Signalling Technicians at Claremont.

In 1995 the Cabin was awarded the Town of Claremont Civic Design Award in recognition for efforts of all those involved with its restoration.

Post-restoration activities

The completion of the restoration, and refitting of electrical interlocking in 1994, made it possible to stage a number of night openings of the cabin in order to re-enact a famous rail accident which took place fifty years earlier. These re-enactments, were very well attended by people from all walks of life, (many of whom were ex-residents of the area) eager to find out the truth behind the fate of No. 80 Up Goods as it was spectacularly de-railed over one of Claremont station's subway underpasses.

Advertised as a "Night of Light and Sound", visitors were treated to a narration of events leading up to the arrival of the train at Claremont, whereupon the story was taken over by a custom-made soundtrack recording prepared by a cabin volunteer. In stereo, the sound of the massive engine and four-wheeled wagons thundered up from under the cabin, and thrilled the audience as the 'driver' could be heard desperately trying to stop his train before the inevitable happened. The original accident occurred on a terribly stormy, and rainswept night. Our re-enactments were conducted in much drier conditions. As much as we tried, - we couldn't re-create everything!

Although not entirely accurate about some facts, as the subsequent inquest found, the old newspaper article above gives a good overall description of events as they unfolded. The date of the accident was 12 September 1944.

Future activities

In addition to re-fitting interlocking, several semaphore signals are being restored. It is hoped to re-erect these and perhaps have them working once again from the cabin. In this, and other cabin projects such as refitting telephones and research, we seek any person willing to volunteer their services.

Visiting and contacting

Why not come and see the cabin one day? It's an educational experience for children and adults alike. Visitors are encouraged to 'have a go' at working the levers and sending bell codes, thus making it a truly interactive experience! At present, there is no entry fee to visit the cabin on normal open days.

Group bookings and visits at other times however, must be made through the Claremont Museum

For more details about the Claremont Signal Box Group email the coordinator.


Please note that we are now open on the
First Saturday of every month



OPENING TIMES 9.30a.m. to 12.00noon

Volunteers required

The Claremont Signal Box Group of Western Australia is eager to recruit some new volunteers. The task would suit former Western Australian Government Railway Signalmen, active or retired Signalmen from other lines, or very knowledgable railway enthusiasts who have good verbal communication skills. Following training, volunteers would assist in the demonstration to the public of the working of the restored 1906 cabin.

We have strived to recreate the classic W. A. G. R. Signalman's working environment, and volunteers may, if they so wish, involve themselves in all aspects of the cabin's on-going research, maintenance and re-equipment. If you would like to offer your services, please contact the Co-ordinator.

Content: ©C. French
Photos: © C. French & © J. Stanbridge
Authorised Publisher: J. Hinson
12 September 1998 & updates ZEBU & ACK

Comments about this article should be addressed to Chris French at