Sunday, 26 August 2012

First training day in Consall Box

Having qualified as a crossing keeper on the Churnet Valley Railway, and passed my rules exam and personal track safety exam, I was keen to commence signaller training on the railway. Today was my first day as a trainee signaller, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

An early start had me at Cheddleton by 8:00 am where I booked on as trainee signaller for Consall signal box. For a full description of how the Box is worked, and how the railway's token system is organised, please see the entry in this blog for 10th June entitled 'Churnet Valley Signalman?'

This weekend the railway is running a 'Thomas the Tank Engine' event for children, and the Llangollan Railway's Jinty has been hired in as 'Thomas'. This locomotive features in this blog as 'Thomas' at MoSI (3rd September 2010 entry), and some of my views on 'Thomas' events can be read in the blog entry for 1st September 2011 when MSC locomotive 'Gothenburg' was MoSI's 'Thomas'.

In the DMU at Cheddleton, waiting to travel down to Consall with the N7 steam locomotive, which can be seen ahead of us in the yard complete with 'Thomas' face

At the start of a day when two trains are running (hence the need to operate Consall Box where the trains cross) the Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) and the locomotive of the steam train run to Consall as one train, where the token (drivers' authority to run on the line) is split into two, one for the Froghall - Consall section and one for the Leekbrook - Consall section (see that 10th June blog entry for more details). So I boarded the DMU, which at 08:50 pulled out of the bay platform at Cheddleton onto the main line. The N7 steam locomotive that would spend the day pulling the passenger stock then exited the yard and coupled up to the rear of DMU for the journey to Consall.

'Thomas' in Cheddleton yard as we depart for Consall. While the DMU and the steam train spend the day running between Leekbrook at the northern end of the line and Froghall at the southern end (passing each other at Consall station), this jinty will remain at Cheddleton giving brake van rides between the bay platform and the yard.

We approach Consall in the DMU. Consall's Up Home signal number 14 set at 'clear' means we can pass it to enter the station

The weather is still a tad dull as we roll into Consall

The 'layout' controlled by Consall Box, displayed above the lever frame

'Ready for business'. Consall frame's 'King Lever' (brown and white striped) is 'back' showing the Box is 'open' and we are ready to set for the first train movement. Only the facing point lock lever (number 5) is 'forward' , locking the points (lever 6) in the 'main line' position.

The all important Train Register, where all train movements are recorded by the signalman

I was met at Consall by the rostered signalman for the day, Howard. Howard is a delightful chap and a good teacher. He is actually a retired English and music teacher, and also a musician in a classical quartet and  has a house in France where he likes to spend time when he's away from the railway.

The DMU departed to Froghall to start passenger services from the south end of the line, while the N7 departed north to Cheddleton to pick up its coaches and commence services from there.

After I'd followed Howard's actions for a while and taken copious notes he 'gave me the duster' and it was 'my' box! With Howard keeping a careful eye on proceedings of course.

I spent the rest of the day working the Box, with the exception of the last two trains which Howard handled as it wasn't fair that I should hog all the fun!

Normally, the 'down' train from Froghall arrives before the 'up' one from Cheddleton, so the 'down' train is allowed into the station first before the frame is set up for the loop line to allow the 'up' train to also enter the station (again, see that 10th June blog entry for more details). But on one occasion, as I waited for the alarm buzzer to announce the approach of the 'down' train, the alarm bell sounded instead, indicating that the 'up' train was approaching. 

I looked at Howard; "we've got the 'up' before the 'down'. Should I wait to see if the buzzer sounds or let the 'up' train in?".

"You're the signalman", he replied.

"OK", I said. "I'll set up for the loop first to take the 'up' train". Which I did, signalling it in once the route was set. While I was doing this the buzzer sounded for the 'down' train, which had to wait. Once the 'up' train was in the platform and the staff used to 'prove' the Leekbrook section empty, I re-set the route for the main line and signalled in the 'down' train. When the station stop was complete, the trains on their way north and south up and down the valley from Consall, and the frame and signals re-set for the next movement, Howard let me into a little secret.

"I'll come clean", he said. "I set that up. I had a word with Roger (the DMU driver) to delay his departure from Froghall so the 'up' train would arrive before the 'down, to see if you'd cope. You did!"

Consall is a delightful spot, especially on a fine summer afternoon. There are no roads in the valley, just the Cauldon Canal, the railway, and the constant soothing subdued murmur of the River Churnet gently tumbling over a weir. This view south (towards Froghall) is taken from the signalbox door. Note the narrow boat on the canal.

Here's the view the other way, Towards Cheddleton. The Down Starter signal (number 3) is at the end of the platform, with the lovely Black Lion pub beyond the station on the right. Looking this way one could believe it's still the double track railway it used to be, as point 11, which controls the northern end of the loop, is out of sight beyond the pub.

The view from my chair in the Box, looking south

The Train Register desk, with the yet-to-be commissioned token machine next to it

The weather cleared during the morning and the afternoon was lovely. Here's the Box looking north in the Cheddleton direction.

Scary innit! After a super day at Consall the N7 steam locomotive was coupled to the rear of the now empty DMU  in Consall station, and the Box switched out in a reversal of this morning's Box opening procedure. I boarded the DMU for the journey back to Cheddleton to book off and pick up my car. This picture was taken out of the rear cab of the DMU with a 'Thomas'-faced N7 peering in at us.

Thank you Howard for a most enjoyable day. I hope the remainder of my training turns to become a signaller will be similar!

Postscript: 1st September: 
I've just completed my second training day in the box under Howard's excellent tuition, including handling trains going onto the Cauldon Lowe branch. For these, tickets are issued by the Consall signalman to authorise (in place of the staff) the train onto the Leekbrook section. The staff is kept in the box and 'blocks' are put on the 'down' signals as a reminder to the signalman not to clear another train into that occupied section.

When the train leaves the section (i.e. travels beyond Leekbrook onto the Cauldon branch) the Leekbrook signaller cancels the ticket and phones the Consall signalman to confirm 'train out of section'. The Consall signalman can then remove the blocks from the 'Down' signal levers, and issue the Leekbrook staff to the next down train as usual. When that train reaches Leekbrook, the Leekbrook signaller retains the staff and issues a ticket as authority for the train to return to Consall, whereupon the Consall signaller cancels that ticket. The train proceeds south of Consall using the Froghall staff as authority, in the usual way.

When the Cauldon train returns from the branch, the Leekbrook signaller gives its driver the Leekbrook staff as authority for it to traverse the Leekbrook section to Consall in the normal manner.

When the last Cauldon branch train of the day has completed its trip up the branch and back, the Leekbrook signaller closes down and normal working is resumed.

Howard chats to the DMU driver in the station at Consall. They had a little 'game' going whereby the driver has to stop his train so the cab window is exactly level with the point on the platform where Howard is standing. The destination blind was set by the driver to 'Alderley Edge' as a special request from me. 

Interestingly, the above picture shows 'wrong way working' for a two-train day at Consall. Normally, up trains use the loop to allow down trains to use the main line, but here the Froghall-bound DMU (so an up train) is on the main line. This is because the down train has gone on to Cauldon Lowe so will not pass the DMU at Consall allowing us to give the main platform to the up train which saves passengers having to cross the line to reach or leave the train to and from the station buildings.

Both the main line and the loop at Consall are bi-directionally signalled so we can work up or down trains through either the main line or the loop.

And I must remember to buy Howard a bacon butty next time; it's his habit to order one from the guard of the first up train to Froghall in the morning, who'd purchase it at that station's tearoom (at half price volunteer discount) and deliver it to Howard on the train returning to Consall on its northward journey. Today he bought two - one for me!
Postscript: 8th September:
Third training day at Consall today, with a different signalman, Roger Taylor. It was another lovely day in the valley and the working was a tad different and of a type not often run. Instead of the usual two passenger trains crossing at Consall, we had the class 33 diesel loco running the passenger service, while the N7 (running light engine in the morning and with a 2-coach train in the afternoon) doing a 'Footex'. Now I thought 'Footex' was a 'Football Extra' service, but in CVR-speak it is a 'Footplate Experience' train; that is, a train where someone has purchased a 'Driver Experience'.

It was interesting from the signalling point of view in that at Consall we would always run the passenger train via the 'main line' (so it will arrive and depart from the main platform to minimise the walk for passengers and negate the need for them to cross the line to the 'loop line' platform) and the 'Footex' would always take the loop as it wasn't carrying passengers except guests of the Driver Experience customers, who would not be leaving or joining the train at Consall.

This meant that we had to set up alternate routes, and use the shunt signals for the 'down' working through the loop (both loop and main line are bi-directionally signalled, but it's unusual to run down trains through the loop so that is signalled by small circular shunt signals at ground level).

Like Howard, Roger is an excellent teacher and very much left me to it, including the 'opening' (switching the box in) first thing on the morning, and the 'closing' (switching the box out again) in the evening. I feel (and Roger opined) that I've a good feel for the box now. I just need to bone up on 'unusual proceedures' (failures of signals or track circuits) and the rules pertaining to signalling, and as Roger said "I look forward to having another signaller on the roster soon".

Let's hope so!

 Postscript: 15th September:
Another lovely day in the valley, however it's mid September and the sun is lower; autumn knocking at the door. But I was with Howard again and he always raises ones spirits! I travelled to Consall today on my Freewind motorcycle which makes for a quicker and cheaper journey, but it does mean a change into and out of riding gear on arrival and on departing Consall. And I'd remembered to have our 'bacon butty money' ready on the desk in the signalbox to give to the guard of the first 'Up' train for two bacon butties!

Today, once again we had a footplate experience steam train running hauled by the N7, while the DMU handled the passenger service.

 I suppose I have to decide soon whether I'm ready yet for assessment for appointment as signalman. The routine operation is engrained quite well now, but the test of whether one has mastered the job will occur with failures. What if a track circuit fails and I can't change a point? Or the point itself, or its facing point lock fails? Or a signal cable snaps? These are the test of one's grasp of the job, not the ability to run the box when everything's going to plan.

As the first 'up' (southbound to Froghall) train was ready to depart I grabbed the Token for the Froghall section and told Howard I was off over the tracks to give it to the driver.

"Um, I think you've forgotten something", said Howard.

I scanned the levers and the indicators. I'd set the points and signals for both trains to depart... it all looked OK to me. I double checked the token I had was the correct one. I took another look at the frame. I could not see what I'd overlooked.

"It's probably the most important aspect of the job", said Howard, reprovingly.

Oh dear. What had I done wrong, or failed to do right? I checked the lever frame and indicators again.... I could see nothing amiss.

"You'll have to give me a clue, Howard" I admitted, quite defeated.

A slow smile spread across his face. "bacon buttie money from the desk of course!", he chortled!

What a star!



  1. Loved this, and thought of my 3rd grandchild Robert(8) who is steam mad, Hope to show him some of your steam blogs soon. His favorite is the Jacobite from Fort William to Mallaig(the nearest to us) but his Gran, Fiona, did take him to the museum at York and he loved it. I did a Thomas the Tank day at Tenterton in Sussex but without Robert, which thoroughly pissed him off when he heard. We have a steam Puffer(small coaster) called Vic 32 in our area and I know the owners well,

    so much so that when I was a lock keeper in Crinan I degreased and re-painted the engine room for extra pocket money and the joy of painting a marine steam engine

  2. Ah! I remember Para Handy and The Vital Spark! Got the book somewhere.

    Great to hear Robert is a youngster of taste. I'm amazed how 'Thomas' brings so many kids in, and they are so keen.

    Short update on my signaller training today. I think it'll be a while before the 'box in all its aspects becomes a 'no brainer' second nature job for me!

    So glad you liked that post.