Signal recoveries

From Festipedia, hosted by the FR Heritage Group

Signal Recoveries – circa 1970, by David Josey. A personal account of equipment salvage operations mostly on the Southern Region of British Rail 1968-1972 to acquire useful items for the FR.

Early operations[edit]

In the Autumn of 1968, John Wagstaff and I were invited by Norman Pearce to visit the FR and comment on the feasibility of installing Swiss-style tail-magnets to replace the existing miniature staff instruments. At that time John and I worked in the Signalling Design Office on the Southern Region at Croydon – we were enthusiastic railwaymen.

Tail magnets were used to record the arrival of a complete train off of a single line, and so replaced the traditional method whereby a signalman observed the tail lamp. Whilst this system saved on a signalman, it also needed an expensive electrical relay interlocking system. John and I quickly realised that the FR did not have the budget for such signalling and something else was needed instead. Though the tail-magnet idea was a non-starter, I suspect it had the desired effect that Norman was looking for! We were hooked!

Throughout 1969 and 1970 we devoted ourselves to gathering equipment, expanding our volunteer workforce and developing deliverable signalling systems for the FR. This entry is about the gathering of equipment in the four years 1969 to Easter 1972. I mostly only kept some newsletters of that time having deposited in the archives the main correspondence of the period late 1968 to summer 1972, which was when I was active on the FR. These archives are not available at the present. Let us hope that at some time they emerge. Fortunately Norman Pearce, the S&T Engineer (volunteer), seemed never to have thrown anything away and I was very kindly given access to his partially sorted archive. This has helped me no end, as I had written far more at that time than I now remember.

John and I worked in the SR signal drawing office (now Design office) at Croydon, so we used our contacts and knowledge. The SR at that time had started the Surbiton and Victoria resignalling schemes and Feltham and London Bridge schemes were being worked up. John initially worked on the Victoria scheme and then took charge of a new section for developing signalling schemes. I was heavily involved in level crossing modernisation – mainly automatic half-barriers (AHBs).

Our first acquisition was from a partially demolished signal box on the Hounslow loop – possibly Brentford. This was an old signal box where the signalman faced the track. This was fortunate for the signalman one night when a goods train derailed on facing points and the wagons, still running in the train, but off to one side, took the front of the signalbox away. The lever frame was left in-situ with all the levertails snapped off. It must have been terrifying for the signalman on duty! John and I bought what was left of the mechanical point and signal cranks. We also removed a vast collection of Leclanche wet cells – batteries with separate replaceable innards. I don’t think the FR ever used them as batteries, but the glass jars made useful paint brush jars.

John Wagstaff on ‘signal recoveries return empties’ south of Trawsfynydd in early 1969 - David Josey

I hired a decrepit largish van from a back street firm in Farnborough, Hampshire, which we loaded up one Saturday morning. Grinding our way up the M1, everything, but everything, overtook us. I was well into flashing my headlights to bring artics in when they had cleared me. As soon as I flashed my headlights, the artics swung in. Getting braver I started to bring them in with little margin to spare – oh! the arrogance and the confidence of the young! Another artic, loaded with new cars, went slowly by, my hand reached out to the light switch, in my peripheral vision I espied a towbar, my hand froze, and slowly into view came a trailer with more new cars. Phew! That could have been nasty!

Arriving in the Vale we tried to go up to TYB, but stalled just after the entrance to Plas, we were that overloaded. I did one other trip with this van, but then our gathering of equipment had advanced such that we needed a larger vehicle. From then on we used the FR articulated lorry. So started a very fruitful and good four year relationship with Eddie Jones in Leeds. He ran the FR lorry for many years, but we never met, only conversing on the telephone and by postal mail.

Tulse Hill[edit]

Our first major recovery was Tulse Hill signal frame. The leverframe was a Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company (WBS) type A2/A3 of 20-30 levers. The original ‘A’ type was a very cumbersome pre-WW1 affair. Up to WW1 all leverframes were cumbersome, some more so than others, and difficult to make changes to. After WW1 the industry developed better elevated frames – the GWR had a spring assisted one, the LNER I believe had an ‘L’ frame and the Southern Railway used the WBS type A2, later A3. It was only when John and I started to look into these frames in detail, that we realised that there had been steady improvements through the 1920s and 1930s. At some stage the name changed from A2 to A3. The SR modified these installed frames as track alterations were made, making minute variations, so much so, that John and I could never decide what was the defining distinction between an A2 and an A3.

Back to Tulse Hill. The station is on a secondary line from Victoria and immediately south of the station is a ‘Y’ junction. The signalbox was on the embankment at this junction. Originally all three directions were controlled by mechanical signals and block instruments. For one of the stages of the Victoria resignalling, Tulse Hill became a fringe box with track circuiting and colour-light signals towards Victoria, but retaining its Up mechanical home signals. That is the two signals protecting the ‘Y’ junction. Because the signal spacing was close, a distant signal was required at these home signals for the colour-light signals towards Victoria. The rules of British signalling do not allow for a mechanical distant signal to lead up to a colour-light stop signal. The solution is to put a colour-light signal – known as an approach signal - under the mechanical stop arm. These colour-light distant signals were lit when the mechanical stop signal was proved in the ‘off’ position. Thus the stage arrangement was for a 3-aspect Y/G/Y head to be placed under each Up stop signal, a single-aspect, Y, signal on the end of the platform, and, round the corner, the first four-aspect colour light signal of the Victoria scheme. Thus the approach distant signals could never show a green aspect!

This stage only lasted a few months and then Tulse Hill and its temporary signals were abolished. I bought the signal frame and its associated items through an internal scheme whereby employees could buy scrap material. Apart from the frame and the signal heads there was also a small collection of signal shelf relays, arm and lever contact boxes. The two 3-aspect heads were used for temporary signalling at Minffordd, the single aspect for Penrhyn down level crossing distant, the relays and contact boxes helped control them – the leverframe was never used!

3-aspect signal heads in Boston Lodge top yard 1969/70. Photo: David Josey
Tulse Hill leverframe being dismantled 1969. Photo: David Josey

We dismantled the leverframe and collected the other items into the signal box and ordered the FR lorry to come down from Leeds one Saturday morning. We arrived in good time and started the job of carrying the large and heavy levers down the embankment steps to the pavement below. The pile of equipment grew, the ETA of the lorry came and went; we continued to bring the kit down. A police car cruised by on the High Street, looking casually at us. It went back again, the pile grew, the police car made a third pass, the crew looking more intently at us! There were no mobile telephones in those days and I had no way to contact Leeds to see whether the lorry was actually on its way. My gang started muttering that no way were they carrying the levers back up those steps.

The lorry arrived! Difficulties on the M1, congestion getting across London, not like Leeds at all! And so the first of a number of full artic loads was sent north-westwards to the Top Left-hand Corner of Wales. Richard Evans, another of the signal gang, believes this happened at Hampton Court Jcn. – perhaps the lorry was late then too!

Surbiton and beyond[edit]

Surbiton panel signalbox was commissioned about this time. The mechanical signalling between Surbiton and Woking had been left when the Bournemouth line was electrified a couple of years earlier, purely from a workload perspective - it was already immunised from third rail DC traction. Now resources were directed to removing a mechanical signalling patch in what was now an all colour-light area. There were two WBS frames that I wanted – Surbiton and Hampton Court Junction – both of which had fifty plus levers. This time the BR project team wanted to sell the items formally so we asked Norman Pearce to join John and I in talking to the BR Supplies man from Derby. I was most impressed at the time to be negotiating with BR Supplies! Later in my career I supplied them with in-house computer systems!

Surbiton was a simple recovery job as all the other equipment had been stripped out. However, it had been a technician’s depot, so we kitted ourselves out with discarded bib and brace overalls. There was also the racking that had housed the shelf relays – heavy duty two and a half inch angle iron. We took these to pieces and I used much of it later to make my own frameworks to support signals and the like.

Surbiton Signal Box was of the Southern Railway’s 1930s art nouveau style of station buildings, built on the UP side of the station, which was in the same architectural genre. Very similar to the Hornby Dublo OO model I had as a lad. After recovering Surbiton leverframe we moved on the Hampton Court Junction. Hampton Court Junction Signal Box had the same modern WBS A3 leverframe and controlled colour light signalling, but the signal engineers had to re-use the existing brick and wood structure. Was this because Hampton Court Jcn. was not at a station?

Hampton Court Jcn. is just to the west of Surbiton on the main line out of Waterloo and at that time had been the fringe signal box to the 4-aspect colour light signalling that extended out from Waterloo. I have seen a photograph of the lever frame being off-loaded from railway wagons direct onto the operating floor through the window space. The layout is complicated in having a 4-track mainline, a branch to Hampton Court going off to the north and one south to Effingham Jcn. and Guildford. The Hampton Court branch by way of a flyover and the other with a fly under. It had semaphore home and distant UP signals, with approach light colour-lights under the home signals. As all home signals were pairs – leading to the UP THROUGH and the UP LOCAL – there were a lot of displaced colour-lights heads. Unfortunately, due to the location on a busy third-rail electrified railway, with very limited road access, only one pair of heads were obtained. Having been installed in the 1930s and they had cast iron bodies, unlike the later and lighter cast alloy bodies of the two we obtained from Tulse Hill.

John Wagstaff – BL top Yard. ‘Now we are going to use these where?.’ Photo: David Josey c1970

In addition to the fifty plus levers and associated cranks, pulleys and some railway signalling relays, a number of other interesting items of equipment were also recovered. One such item was a working ‘Silent’ portable forge, which came in very handy when we were doing alterations to the signalling at Harbour station. ‘Silent’ it said on its casting, but silent it was not! When the handle for the blower was wound, it gave out a mournful wail – much to the delight of us all in the dark evenings when we worked at Harbour.

Much of the signal interlocking was done by Sykes local locking. These electric lever locks were housed in wooden boxes on the instrument shelf above the levers. The boxes were to the same pattern as Syke’s block instruments, and connected to the lever tails below, by relatively small cross section rods. There were also horizontal rods between the boxes for one box to mechanically lock or release another box. Mechanically rather elegant I always thought. To do alterations to this form of interlocking was a specialist job and at that time there was only one Signal Technician on the Western Section who was qualified.

We had no use for this equipment, but it seemed a shame to scrap it so we carefully dismantled it. In the Croydon signal office was someone who, like us, was a volunteer signal engineer on the Bluebell Railway. He was installing LBSCR style signalling and as the LBSCR had used Sykes Lock and Block, we presented this to him. I hired a small van to make the delivery to Horsted Keynes and had great delight in seeing his and his team’s faces when they saw the quantity involved. I cannot say whether it was used.

The last leverframe we bought was from Hoo in north Kent. I bought it without a site visit, so was disappointed that when we arrived to dismantle it, only the leverframe was left. The signal box looked very sad and lonely as it sat on its own in a waste area, the nearest railway track being some distance away. We also wanted the RSJ beam that the leverframe sat on. TYB full signalling scheme was being worked up at that time, and we wanted the RSJ for this signal box. Unfortunately we underestimated the cutting power- or lack of – of the ‘domestic’ gas cutting equipment of Peter Lewis, one of our gang. After an hour ‘cutting’ the RSJ was hot to touch, but no actual cut!

Later we were offered Southampton Terminus leverframe, but we decided that with over 200 levers in store we had enough. However we did buy the WBS combined lever lock and controllers as these were fine ‘modern’ items. I was heavily engaged in level crossing modernisation on many weekends at that time, so John and the gang took my long wheel-base Landrover to recover the controllers. I was somewhat displeased to meet them back at my home to see the Landrover fully down on its springs. It seemed to survive this treatment and we worked the controllers northwards on our monthly visits.

The Tale of a Signal Apparatus Case[edit]

Sometime during this period we visited the Pompey Direct to recover the two Ibsworth intermediate home and distant signals.

When signal boxes were first invented they were located at stations and sidings where there were points. The section of line between such boxes became the block section, where only one train was allowed at a time. Thus the headway for following trains was, in part, dictated by the distance between stations. As more trains were run then this headway became a restricting factor. Busy level crossings afforded some relief as the crossing boxes could became a block post as well. However on some lines intermediate block posts were needed and often they would have few levers. All that was really needed was a stop and a distance signal for each line of way.

By the 1920/30s labour costs were increasing and electricity was becoming more widely available. Signal Engineers created reliable track circuits to detect the presence of trains and robust electrical motors and their associated control circuits to motorise semaphore signals. Thus intermediate block posts were started to be replaced by Intermediate Block Signals (IBS). An IBS home and distance signal was placed beyond a block post, with a track circuit detecting the presence of a train, thus eliminating the need to observe the tail lamp after the train had passed beyond the overlap of the intermediate stop signal.

By the 1950s, at least, colour light signals were used for IBSs though I my memory says that at least one semaphore IBS was installed by the Southern region in this decade. WBS developed for the home market an integrated colour light signal that placed a short tubular post on top of a strong six foot high apparatus case on which was mounted a colour light two aspect head. This head could be red/green or yellow/green.

I probably did the detailed signalling drawings for the last IBS in this replacement ‘programme’ as my first independent job in the SR S&T drawing office at Wimbledon in the early 1960s. This was to replace Feltham Reformatory block post just to the west of Feltham station. Other IBSs were installed in the late 1960s, but these were to replace level crossing/block signal boxes as part of the level crossing modernisation programme which I was heavily involved in.

One such WBS early installation was towards the south end of the Pompey Direct line from Guildford to Havant. Between Petersfield & Rowland’s Castle were IBS signals in both directions called – I think – Ibsworth Intermediate’s. In 1969 – or maybe 1968!- the Portsmouth Area was resignalled and the resignalling area went eastwards to Havant and up the Pompey Direct to Petersfield. As a railwayman, I bought the four Ibsworth signals as scrap and in-situ by the simple expedient of chatting to the Signal Inspector and filling in an incredibly small form. Probably I paid half a guinea (10/6) as this was my standard offer at the time – it seemed such a nice round number.

The deal was that I arranged a recovery gang to go in under the general S&T possession and the inspector provided a couple of PW trolleys and an Electrical Dept. ‘lamp man.’ My recollection is that the Electrification people had boxes with 6 lamps in, two parallel circuits each with three standard 200-240v bulbs in series. With three bulbs in series, any one of them blowing would lead to all 3 out, which is why there were two parallel sets. I recall there being three bulbs in a row each side of a central handle, looking like a kind of weird wooden milk crate with light-bulbs instead of bottles. If the lamps did not light up then the juice (660V or 750V DC) was off – or all the lamps had broken!

So late one Saturday evening a disparate group of railwaymen and enthusiasts gathered alongside the railway south of Petersfield. The lamp man arrived to give us permission to go on the line. He gave the assorted hand lamps a puzzled look especially as they were all different and ranged from modern electric lamps to oil and even acetylene. As Bardic hand lamps were on general issue and Tilley lamps were largely a thing of the past, we looked rather strange. We casually told we came from the Wimbledon Area and we preferred the old types.

An Ibsworth IBS apparatus case reused on the Cob for the Up Advance Signal 1971. Photo: David Josey

Unlocking the padlocked PW trolleys he warned us that we would be going wrong road – down the Up – as the Down road still had juice on for the last southbound Pompey train to pass through. Though there were some technicians and HQ staff in my party there were also a number of non-railwaymen who were not used to being out on a live railway, so I emphasised not to stray off the down road. Of course, there was no actual agreement who I was taking with me, no trackside certificates, and insurance - ?

Untoward the lads cheerfully pushed the trolleys up the grade in what was a great and exciting enterprise for them. What the lamp man thought of all the chatter was beyond me, but I was careful not to enquire. Up the grade through Buriton Tunnel we pushed – dark though the night was the tunnel was pitch black. Half way through there was the whistle of an electric train and with a roar a Nelson EMU ground past us with lights shining out from the windows and much flashing from the pickup shoes as they bounced along the conductor rail.

Then silence! I had no fear of any of the lads wandering near the juice rail!

Out of the tunnel, over the summit and free wheeling down the grade. In the dark we nearly overshot the first of the signals. And so we spent an exciting and memorable night atop an embankment unscrewing large nuts and bolts that probably were only meant to be screwed together once. Welding four foot stillson’s over my head made me wish for gas cutting equipment, but we wanted the inch and a half or so bolts to reuse. The signals in pieces were piled on the trolleys and at the end of the shift it was loaded trolleys that had to be pushed back up the grade to the summit and then offloaded at what I seem to remember looked like some former sidings that had been lifted.

Either that morning, or a subsequent weekend, the FR lorry came down from Leeds and we loaded it up for a trip to N.Wales.

When we came to do the detail design of the Cob signalling I selected one of these cupboards for the Advance Starting signal. That is why the cupboard had a large circular cap bolted on its roof. After perhaps fifteen years on the Pompey direct and another forty plus years on the cob, the cupboard eventually needed replacement in the 2010s. I think two of the other cases were used for the Penrhyn colour light Home signal installation.

Telecoms equipment[edit]

Signalling was not the only items we recovered for use on the FR. The ‘T’ side of S&T was also attended to. During the early 1940s, or so I was told when I joined BR, The Canadians installed control offices on each of the Southern Railway’s three Divisions. From the Canadians the offices were known as CONtrol and a Southern railwayman was easily identified when talking about these offices as other Regions used the English pronunciation. The objective of the control office was to have an overview of train running, and to implement alternative services should a line be blocked etc. Obviously line blockages are more likely to happen in wartime, which is why the control system was installed. A dedicated telephone system was installed between the control office and important signal boxes. With the coming of panel signal boxes, and the extended areas they controlled, the job of the control offices changed and with it the communications systems needed.

The South Western Division control office was in ‘temporary’ wooden huts on the London, down side of Woking station. Around 1970 the Woking control office closed and I bought the 4 plus 1 carrier cubicles that were the basis of the dedicated telephone system. 4 plus 1 indicated that there were 4 high frequency – carrier – voice channels, and one at base frequency. Those were the days of individually wired electronic circuits and glass valves. The cubicles were six foot high with angle iron frames and steel panels – rather heavy!

One Saturday morning we met the FR artic, which had come down from Leeds, at Woking. The lorry could not get that close to the offices, so we used what was then a standard SR platform trolley and placed the cubicles on the end cross bars. Warning the gang to keep their hands off the cross bars we manoeuvred the trolleys over uneven footpaths to the lorry and then heaved them up onto the flatbed of the trailed. Nellie – actually Neil Thompson, but as he was a schoolboy still, we called him Nellie – put his hand on top of the cross bar just as the trolley hit an uneven joint and the cubicle slid rapidly across the bar and squashed his finger against the end stop. This was the only time in the four years of FR work that I had to take anyone to hospital. Of course, we were in ragged and dirty overalls, and trying to describe who we were, what we were doing, and who we ‘worked’ for was challenging. Fortunately Neil’s fingers were not broken and he only had bruising.

I think we also recovered other telecoms. equipment from Woking but I am a Signals man so my memory has not kept the details! Leaving Woking we headed down the line to the next station at Brookwood – famous for its Necropolis (cemetery) railway. Basingstoke panel signal box with colour light signalling had just replaced the 1900s pneumatic semaphore signalling and rationalised the layouts. The UP sidings had been removed and converted to a car park. The only survivor was the exit signal post which had been lifted from the ground, stripped of its fittings, and left there. I had bought this post which was a typical South Western lattice post – or so we thought. On inspection it had some lettering cast onto its base which ended in ‘R’, but it did not read L&SWR. The details escape me, but they coincided with a former South American Railroad. Was this signal post made for South America but ended up at Brookwood? A year or so later it was doing service as Minffordd UP Home!

The post was lattice for most of its length, but it had a heavy cast iron base that was meant to be in the ground. We could lift the top end onto the trailer but the bottom end proved too heavy for us to lift and we had no lifting tackle. The lorry driver was a professional lorry driver who occasionally drove for the FR in his holidays and so was not used to being beaten. Detaching the tractor unit from the trailer he tied a rope to the post and started to haul the post onto the trailer. The trailer started to move forward but the front legs stayed where they were. We just stopped the tractor before the trailer pitched forward. Backing the tractor gingerly we just managed to get it under the leading edge of the trailer and lifted the trailer to the horizontal. Wedging the trailer wheels we tried again and pulled the post onto the trailer. Phew!!

On to Southampton for another couple of 4 plus 1 cubicles. This was a bank holiday Saturday before the M3 was built, with crawling traffic jams and a police presence at the ends of the few dual carrageways to reduce road rage, so progress was exceedingly slow and it was dark when we arrived in Southampton. The telecoms. exchange was close to central station with a public footpath running beside it to the station car park. The cubicles were inside the exchange but disconnected. Like all such equipment rooms it was spotlessly clean with a shiny floor. I was terrified we would mark the floor, but we found enough mats to lower each cubicle onto and slide them across the floor. Lifting them over the low wall to the footpath was not without incident. As we relaxed from one lift with the cubicle resting on the wall, Philip quietly said, “Lift again please, my fingers are underneath.” It seemed ages to me as we all took deep breaths before we could lift again. Fortunately again no bones were broken! It was passed midnight before we got to our beds and we were up early next morning to drive to North Wales.

These particular 4+1 units were apparently not designed for use with exchanges. So after many years of scratching their heads as to how to use them, the ‘T’ people eventually discarded them. Just like the 200+ signal levers we had also recovered!

Another time we also got telecoms. equipment from Redhill, but the only thing I remember was loading the depot ‘gate stop’ onto the lorry. The gate had not been moved for many a year and was held back, and possibly up, by the vegetation, so the stop could be safely recovered. The ‘gate stop’ since served for many years out on the Cob at Porthmadog. It was a WBS signal motor and we used it on the Advance Starting signal.

Also, sometime during this period, I hired a small van to help a friend, another Phil, signal gang member and colleague at Croydon to move a smallish milling machine from a works in north London to his home in Portsmouth. It was small in the workshop, but increased in size and weight when it saw the van! However, we loaded it and all went well until we started the steep descent of the A3 to Portsmouth, when someone pulled out in front of me and I had to make an emergency stop. The milling machine slid forward and was only stopped from hitting our seats by my leather briefcase – well, I probably needed a nice new one anyway! Having got the machine unloaded into position we looked at wiring it up, at which point Phil discovered that such machines are often three-phase! Ah! Well, Phil learnt a lesson and Boston Lodge gained a milling machine.

Caernarfon to Afon Wen[edit]

Afon Wen to Caernarfon signal recoveries. Winter 1971/72 Photo: David Josey
Afon Wen to Caernarfon signal recoveries – burning as we went!. Winter 1971/72 Photo: David Josey

My last on-site recovery job, as part of the FR S&T, was Easter 1972, when we finished recovering many of the signals and small ground frames on the Caernarfon to Afon Wen line – see FRHGJ No.123. For this operation we borrowed the Building Departments’ pick-up truck to drive along the railway line hauling signal posts back to dumps where the FR artic could then collect them.

After that I retired from such activities to get married, home DIY, and have a family. In late 1972 I was promoted to the Level Crossing Section of BRHQ. Initially our office was just north of Euston station in the old Railway Clearing House offices. The other side of Euston was Collector’s Corner, so some lunchtimes I would wander round there. Mostly the items were of general interest, but I did get for myself a useful short crowbar, marked GWR. Occasionally, signalling items appeared, and I bought 50 semaphore arm repeating relays. Far more than the FR needed, so when the London Midland Region realised they actually needed some for an alteration job, I negotiated with Bob Mac, for him to sell some back to BR.

The last items I bought from Collector’s Corner were very large, and very heavy, double six-arm shelf signalling relays. They consisted of two conventional relays bolted to a metal base plate with an interlocking arm pivoted over their armatures. Thus they were mechanically prevented from both relays being energised at the same time. They were used at Minffordd when that station was fully signalled in the mid 1970s.

So ended, for me, a very intense and interesting period of my life, which has had an influence on me ever since!