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Signalling and Signal Boxes

by John Clayson

From the public perspective signals and signal boxes are among the most characteristic features of the railway scene.  In the days of mechanical signalling (at Grantham until 1972) signals were conspicuous in the landscape.  Their distinctive arrays of semaphore arms reflected the local track layout and the traffic worked over it.

From the viewpoint of the railway community Signalmen were, and Signallers on the railway today are, highly proficient in the rules and practicalities of railway operation.  Originally known as railway policemen, and hence generally referred to on the railway as 'bobbies', the safety of their colleagues, passengers and the public depends on the alertness and anticipation of signalling staff.  On many an occasion, and usually unreported outside the railway network, the actions of a lone signalman acting on their own initiative, using their detailed knowledge of the railway coupled with an instant recall of emergency procedure, has prevented a potentially dangerous situation developing into a serious incident.

Signalling and Signal Boxes explores the history of signalling at Grantham and  describes what it was like to work in the signal boxes.

The signal box, once a familiar sight at stations and junctions, is a mysterious place to most of us. Casual visits were discouraged by a notice on the door sternly warning ‘NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON BUSINESS’.

Through the windows of Grantham’s signal boxes you could often glimpse signalmen at work. From within came the ‘ting’ and ‘tang’ of bells and the sound of heavy levers being deftly operated. Outside there were other sights and sounds - sliding switch rails, tightening wires and pivoting semaphore signal arms. Such activity heralded the approach of each train, sometimes long before it appeared into view.

Among railway staff the Signalmen (nowadays Signaller) has as responsible a job as any.  The work is a complex mixture of communication, control, observation and record keeping.

  • communication to receive, process and relay information;
  • control to enable the railway to operate safely according to the rulebook and punctually according to the timetable;
  • observation to watch each train as it passes to ensure its safety, and also to note and report faults in the signalling equipment;
  • record keeping to back up the Signalman’s memory in case of ‘information overload’ at the busiest times, and also to act as evidence should an incident occur which requires to be investigated.

Below is a message of November 1920 from Station Master William Bradley to signal boxes in the Grantham area, requiring timely and detailed reporting if a train passed a signal at danger.

You also kept pretty fit working a busy mechanical signal box.  Some of the levers required a practised combination of strength and bodily momentum to operate a heavy crossover, or a semaphore distant signal which might be connected to the lever frame by nearly a mile of steel wire guided by dozens of pulleys.

There are general rules and procedures for railway signalling, but each signal box is different and has to be ‘learned’ before it can be operated safely. Signal boxes are graded according to the complexity of the layout they control and the intensity of the traffic. Promotion means moving to a more highly graded box.

This part of our website explores the fascinating subject of signalling on the railway at and around Grantham station.  There are further pages as follows:

  • My Early Recollections of Working on the Railway - the life of the signalman by John Pegg, whose railway career of 47 years was mostly spent in signal boxes.  John's informative and entertaining recollection of his career at several 'boxes in and around Grantham reminds us that every signal box was different - certainly in its scope of operation but often also in its setting, whether in the urban environment or in a remote, rural location.

There will be illustrated histories of each of the Grantham area signal boxes:

East Coast Main Line (south to north)

  • Grantham Station
  • Grantham Junction
  • Peascliffe
  • Belton
  • Barkston Junction / Barkston South Junction
  • Barkston North Junction
  • Hougham
  • Westborough

The Nottingham Branch

  • Allington Junction / Allington
  • Belvoir
  • Sedgebrook

Allington Junction to Honington

  • Muston
  • Barkston East Junction
  • Honington Junction

The High Dyke Branch

  • Colsterworth Mines
  • Skillington Road
  • Stainby

...and an explanation of how trains have been signalled at Grantham since 1980, remotely from Doncaster:

We are looking for more material, so if you can add memories or technical details or can lend us photographs, or you know someone who could, please let us know.


More about Railway Signalling

Railway Signalling is a complex yet fascinating subject, both historically and technically.  There are some excellent websites which explain the general principles in simple steps using illustrations and animations, yet also cover the fine detail.  Their authors are far more knowledgeable about signalling than we are, so we have concentrated in Tracks through Grantham specifically on Grantham interest and content.  Here are some links you may find useful as 'background reading'.

The Signal Box

Railway Signs and Signals of Great Britain

Early Railway Signals

Railway Telecomms


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