Sunday, 10 June 2012

Churnet Valley signalman?

I enjoy being steam locomotive crew on the MoSI railway (see elsewhere in this blog) but have always fancied working a signal box, and MoSI doesn't have signalling as we only run one train at a time. I have been a member of the Churnet Valley Railway since I was bought a 'driver experience' day there for my 60th birthday; I got to drive the big S160 2-8-0 locomotive up and down the valley under supervision, and that led to my becoming a passed fireman (and hopefully before too long, driver) at MoSI.

With the Driver Experience Day came a year's membership of the Churnet Valley Railway, which I have renewed each year since mainly to keep receiving their informative magazine 'The Knotty' and also to support them because they are an enterprising railway with recently-obtained running powers over the Moorland & City Railways - owned line from Leekbrook to Cauldon Lowe. They are currently working with M&CR to re-open the line from Leekbrook to Stoke On Trent, and there are even plans to extend their own Churnet line northwards from Leekbrook to Leek, and south from Froghall to Alton Towers enabling a service to run from Stoke and Leek to Alton Towers amusement park.

The latest issue of 'The Knotty' contained an article about volunteering on the railway, and one of the positions they were looking to fill was that of trainee signalman. I contacted the author and learned that for signalman training one needed to start as a crossing keeper to become familiar with the way the railway operates; for instance the split token system which I'll explain below.

Today I was invited to visit the railway to see how the job of crossing keeper at Cheddleton and signalman at Consall, were carried out, and meet the railway's staff. It was a 'two train' day today, with steam train and a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) running. Sometimes the railway only runs one train, and signalling is then much simplified as there is no need for trains to 'cross' each other at Consall passing loop.

The railway runs along the valley from Froghall in the south to Leekbrook in the north (where there is no station, just a run-around loop). There are intermediate stations (going south from Leekbrook) at Cheddleton and at Consall. The M&CR track to Cauldon Lowe joins the CVR at Leekbrook, as do the proposed re-openings to Stoke and Leek. The proposed re-opening to Alton will be south from Froghall.

When I arrived at Cheddleton station at about 9:00am I found the DMU and the coaching stock for the steam train stabled on the platform roads. The steam locomotive, an N7 0-6-2 tank engine, was on the bay platform road.

N7 tank engine on the bay platform road at Cheddleton this morning

I introduced myself to Daz, the crossing keeper and we went to the Cheddleton signal box to change the points to allow the locomotive out of the bay and onto the main line, resetting and locking the points afterwards. By now the DMU driver had arrived and similarly, after we had closed the crossing gates to road traffic, the steam locomotive set back to beyond the points at the Leekbrook end of the layout and the DMU was allowed out of its platform road onto the main line. The DMU then moved forward to abeam the signal box, followed by the steam locomotive and the two were coupled together to travel down to Consall as a single train. We opened the gates and went back to the 'box where the frame was locked with a key which is attached to a 'double token'. This was handed to the DMU driver as his 'authority to proceed' to Consall and that also ensured that the Cheddleton points could not be changed (there is no need to change them during the day, only when re-stabling the stock at the end of the day are they used again).

With the train gone, we went to have a look around the workshop where the S160 I drove is awaiting overhaul, and a second S160 is almost ready for traffic.

 The N7 is coupled to the DMU so they could run to Consall as a single train

The S160 that I drove for my Driver Experience Day, awaiting overhaul at Cheddleton

 Inside the workshop, a second S160 is almost ready for traffic

When the DMU and locomotive (as one train) reach Consall, a key in the signal box there is used to separate the two tokens the train is carrying (one token is for the Consall - Froghall section, and one for the Consall - Leekbrook section), and the token keys inserted into an instrument in the 'box to authorise the 'box to commence operation.The 'Froghall' token is then handed to the DMU driver as authorisation to proceed to Froghall to pick up passengers, so the DMU can form the first train of the day from there. The 'Leekbrook' token is handed to the locomotive driver as authorisation to proceed back to Cheddleton to pick up the coaching stock and form the first train of the day from that station.

At Chedddleton, Daz and I had time for a cup of tea and a chat about the job. The steam locomotive returned from Consall and coupled onto its train and departed for Froghall and there was nothing for us to do until the DMU arrived from Froghall. The approach of a train from either direction is announced in the Cheddleton crossing keeper's hut by an audible warning, so the keeper can close the gates to road traffic. The road crossing is protected by semaphore signals in both directions, which are permanently at 'danger'. Any approaching train therefore has to stop before it reaches the crossing unless the crossing keeper gives it a 'yellow flag' which authorises the driver to pass the danger signal and proceed with caution. The crossing keeper will only give the yellow flag once the gates are secured against road traffic.

The first train of the day ready to leave Cheddleton

The warning sounded, and Daz and I closed the gates to road traffic. As the DMU appeared round the bend Daz gave the driver the yellow flag, which was acknowledged with a toot of the horn, and the train passed through the station, over the crossing, and on to Leekbrook (trains only stop at Cheddleton when returning from Leekbrook, not when northbound towards Leekbrook). After it had passed we re-opened the gates and awaited its return from Leekbrook. Several minutes later the warning sounded and the we carried out the same procedure as before, and this time the DMU stopped in the station. I thanked Daz and climbed aboard to go and visit the signal box at Consall.

 Aboard the DMU at Cheddleton, awaiting the driver
Approaching Consall on the DMU. This is where the northbound and southbound trains cross; the steam train from Froghall is standing at the platform on the main line, while we have been routed to the passing loop which serves the other platform.

Our DMU was held by a signal just north of Consall until the points ahead of us changed to allow us onto the Consall passing loop, and the signal swung up to allow us to pass. The steam train was waiting in Consall station on the 'main line', and we stopped abeam it. After an exchange of tokens, it left for Leekbrook, and the shortly afterwards DMU (from which I had alighted) departed to continue its journey to Froghall. I crossed the tracks and  climbed the steps into the signal box where I introduced myself to the Consall signalman, Nick Corby.

Nick Corby recording a train movement in the register in Consall 'box
The 'layout' of points, signals, and track circuits on the diagram above the lever frame 
in Consall 'box

Nick welcomed me and explained the levers in his frame at Consall which operate signals, points, and point locks. The 'box also has track circuit indicators to show when a train is occupying the sections of track out of sight, either side of the station area (there are also audible warnings which operate even further out, similar to the warnings at Cheddleton crossing). He also has some signal repeaters to show the aspect being displayed by signals not in direct sight, release buttons for operating points, and several other devices including telephones (dial operated - in keeping with a steam railway!). There is also the all-important train register where every action taken by the signalman is recorded together with the time the action was taken. If there were ever an accident on the railway, this register would be a vital piece of legal evidence.

The route at Consall is usually set up for the main line, and signalled accordingly but only as far as the down (Cheddleton bound) starter signal, which is held at danger. Also the home signal on the Froghall side of the station is held at danger and will only be cleared when the driver of an approaching train has seen it at 'danger' This indicates to him that though he 'has the road', he only has it as far as the next signal (the down starter), not right through the station and on to Cheddleton! Thus a train approaching from Froghall, once that approach signal has cleared, can enter the station and stop (the signalman collects the Consall - Froghall section token from the driver as it enters the station). Once it is stopped, and the signalman has used the key on the token to 'prove' the train has arrived (using the same instrument that was used to commence the day in the 'box), the signals and points are set to the passing loop so the up train from Cheddleton can enter the station. Since the route is set up all the way through to Froghall, there is no need to hold any signals temporarily at danger; the driver 'has the road' all the way, though it would be illegal for him to enter the Consall - Froghall section without the appropriate token!

The Leekbrook - Consall token is retrieved from the driver of the Up train, and again its key is used in the instrument in the signal box to 'prove' that that section is now empty. The signalman can now re-set the points at the Down end of the loop back to 'main line', and pull off the starting signal. Once each driver has been given their appropriate tokens for the section they are entering, they can depart. Nick then sets the points and signals back to 'main line', ready for the next crossover manoeuvre when the trains return from Leekbrook and Froghall.
 Nick collects the token from the Down train from Froghall

My train home? The DMU, strangely showing 'Wilmslow' on its destination blind. 
Consall 'box behind.

 Having handed the Leekbrook token to the driver of the Down train, Nick returns to his 'box

Life in Consall 'box is similar to what it must have been like in a quiet country signal box on British Railways in the 1950s, especially on a delightful summer's day like today. There's a flurry of activity every half hour or so, interspersed with contemplative peace and tranquillity as the River Churnet rolls noiselessly by and the station master gets on with a spot of gardening.

I stayed with Nick until the next 'crossover' of trains, and departed on the Up DMU to Froghall, where a bus rally was in progress!

Bus rally in Froghall station car park

Looking back towards the station buildings

This one reminds me of our recent sojourn to Bournemouth 
to visit daughter Helen

This one seems to be celebrating last weekends royal diamond jubilee!

I managed to blag a ride back to Cheddleton in the cab of the steam loco (if you don't ask you don't get!). Being a northbound (Down) train this would stop at Consall, run through Cheddleton, stop at Leekbrook loop (where there is no station) for the engine to run-around the train, then become a southbound (Up) train stopping at Cheddleton where I would leave it.

The view forward from the footplate of the N7 tank engine

Here are a couple of videos I took from the footplate of the N7 as we pounded up the valley from Froghall:

Climbing towards Consall

 North of Cheddleton, passing the caravan park heading for
Leekbrook Tunnel

 Looking back to Leekbrook Tunnel from the footplate as we 
commence our run down to Cheddleton

 Across the road from Cheddleton station are these delightful pigs, 
sunbathing on this lovely afternoon
While I had been away from Cheddleton Daz had finished his shift and Melvyn Johnson had taken over for the afternoon, so I introduced myself to him to get his take on the job. I stayed to help him work the gates as a couple of trains passed by, then said my goodbyes.

Now I have to decide - can I commit enough time to volunteering at the Churnet Valley Railway to make a go of being a signalman there, alongside my volunteering at MoSI and Styal Mill and my tour guide and education work at the Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park, alongside all my other interests? Today has been a bit of a jolly - a look at the operation as an outsider, enjoying the valley on a gorgeous summer day, riding on the trains, and even a footplate ride on the steam loco. And I got to go home early as well!

The reality will be some turns as trainee, then qualified crossing keeper with fairly long days before getting the opportunity to train in a signal box. The weather will not always be warm and sunny, and in winter it will be dark at both ends of the day and the journey to and from home might be problematical in bad weather.

However, it really would be good to end up a qualified signalman working Consall 'box!

Food for thought!



  1. Thats a superb article! Hope you don't mind if I share it on our Cheddleton Facebook page?

  2. Hi Simon

    Glad you like it. It's not finished yet, but feel free to put it on the Facebook page when it is. Do you need to have a Facebook account to see that page? Can you please send me a link to it as a comment here?



  3. Very interesting to read a report of a new volunteer's experience. I hope you continue to enjoy your volunteering and make good progress.

    For the sake of accuracy, can I just point out that Froghall has an "H" in the spelling although it is silent when spoken. The official name of the station is Kingsley & Froghall. Kingsley is at the top of the hill on the west side.

  4. You absolutely must find the time to volunteer. You'll love it.