Youngsters save a train from disaster by desperately waving improvised flags made red from flannel petticoats in The Railway Children, Edith Nesbit’s classic story. If only signalling on our railways was always so simple. Nowadays signal boxes, one of the icons of our railways’ heritage, are facing the end of the line as the pace of modernisation threatens their future.
In 1948, there were some 10,000 signal boxes in the UK. By 2012, that figure had fallen to less than 500 according to Network Rail. And the number continues to drop, thanks to advances in electrical and electronic control systems and communications technology.
Still with us, however, is a Yorkshire Dales signal box that is one of the most remote in England, where signallers cherish working.
Network Rail signaller Dan Weatherill, 30, welcomes me to his Blea Moor signal box as I scale the steps in driving rain. Resembling an illuminated fish tank on a plinth, it stands between the northern end of Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle railway and the mouth of Blea Moor Tunnel beyond.
“Good news,” he tells us. “There’s a steam train travelling north from Leeds to Carlisle. It recently left Salt Lake Cottages. Due any minute.”
Named after a former shanty town that accommodated navvies who built the line in the late 1800s, these terrace houses are a reminder of other long-gone communities like Batty Wife, Belgravia and Sebastopol.
“Us” comprises Network Rail line manager David Taylor, photographer James Hardisty and myself. Plus Thomas Beresford from a local farming family who has kindly volunteered to be our driver.
“Listen! The steam whistle!” Dan says, pointing. “Shame the mist’s covering Ingleborough. When sunny, it has a snooker table top like Table Mountain.”
We see steam billowing from the engine’s funnel. This reportedly is because trainspotters are willing to pay extra for top quality coal. Rumour also has it that trainspotters volunteer to polish the appropriate steam locomotive at Leeds station overnight so it looks pristine the following day for their zoom lenses. Shame then when it’s misty.
Whoosh! Steam surrounds us like cotton wool as the pistons of the jet-black Dalesman 8F 2-8-0 locomotive propel the leviathan from the 1940s hurtling past. It’s a charter train hauling maroon carriages dating from the 1920s, some having featured in Harry Potter films.
We glimpse the driver on the footplate, oily rag in one hand, scrutinising gauges. The fireman stokes the cherry red firebox with his shovel. On board passengers are tucking into fine dining. Dan waves as a couple raise their glasses.
“Cool,” he says. “Fame at last! Signallers are usually the unsung heroes.”
“That’s because signallers work behind the scenes,” says David Taylor, supping his railway tea. “The signal box system embodies an interlocking lever frame that won’t let us do things we shouldn’t do.
“Still, things can happen. We have to be ready for every eventuality. The safety of the railway is paramount.”
Important standby measures were introduced after an accident at Garsdale station in 1910 when an express train hit a stationary train.
Dan nods, looking sad. Over 100 years later, he worked at Garsdale Head signal box before moving to Blea Moor.
There’s a pinging sound, like a bicycle bell. Dan checks the instrument panel, listening to a series of codes coming through “loud and clear”; as he says, “like a ship’s telegraph in a series of beats and pauses. They are easy for signallers to understand.
“That’s my counterpart at Garsdale station signal box. He’s informing me that another train that left here some time ago has arrived at that station. He’s asking if the line’s clear my way so that he can send on a passenger train going south. Until I reply, his levers will remain locked.”
“How about phoning?” I suggest. He nods. “If the system ever were to go ‘down’, we’d use phones. Until then sending our messages by this kind of Morse code has stood the test of time. It’s less likely to be misunderstood.”
The 30 steel-handled, multi-coloured manual levers arranged along one side of the signal box raise and lower the arms of traditional signals when pulled – like a sort of semaphore. “There are other signals along the line,” says Dan, pointing to a distant one that is just visible in the murk. “It’s linked by a thick wire that runs to the crank below the signal arm. Counter-balances built into the system make it easier to manoeuvre them than it actually looks. Then there are the signal lights along the line...”
With a yank on the levers that he slams home loudly, and using the system of bells pinging, he sends train drivers safely on their way on green. Or halts them on a red until it is safe to proceed.
“Folk tend to think the Settle-Carlisle railway is a preserved line,” he says. “It’s not. It’s a busy working line with a normal set of trains. Crews carry on maintaining the P-way [permanent way] 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including Christmas Day.
“About 30 trains pass Blea Moor every 24 hours, including 23 passenger trains if you take yesterday as an example. Freight-wise, a British Gypsum cement train runs to Kirkby Thore daily, one in a morning and returning in the afternoon.”
A timber train comes past every 24 hours. Oh, and not forgetting stone chipping trains from Arcow Quarry, near Helwith Bridge. Coal trains tend to pass through in the night.
Dan sees the signal box with its cheery coal-burning stove as home from his Morecambe home. Radio and television are not allowed as they are considered distractions. Books, however, are permitted to help him through the long hours.
Storms can batter the windows. Some years ago gale-force winds relieved a car transporter train crossing Ribblehead Viaduct of four Ford Anglias and dumped them 100ft below..
Dan allows an empty freight train through, then explains he can contact drivers by a kind of super-iPad using the GSM-R, meaning Global System for Mobile Communications – Railway. It looks very 21st century, touch screen and all. “If we need a driver to stop in an emergency we can now contact them in the cab by GSM-R and say ‘Stop!’” he says. “Thanks to a series of masts and overlapping cells a driver is always in touch with the nearest mast.”
Walkers with trekking poles trudge past on the footpath to Dentdale. Dan says he feels for them while he’s supping hot soup in his toasty cabin and they are braving Blea Moor hail.
Ghost trains? He shakes his head. “Though signallers have claimed to sometimes smell a whiff of the pungent pipe baccy signallers once smoked.
“Walkers wearing head torches can be scary. I saw these bright lights at head-height bob-bob-bobbing on the dark moor and thought ‘Aliens!’”
As David Taylor sees me to my car parked at Ribblehead, we note the trainspotters who were waiting to snap Dalesman with their zoom lenses have departed. “That’s signalling,” he says. “Steamers are always the main attraction, but to a signaller Dalesman was just one more item of rail traffic passing by today. Dan saw it safely on its way, then focused on the next train.
“Remember how he said it was ‘cool’ when people waved? Signallers work out of the limelight like air traffic controllers. That’s how it should be. It means he’s doing his job and keeping everyone safe.
“Long may signallers keep doing the same.”