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Quainton News Archive - Quainton News No. 32 - Summer 1977
Signalling at Quainton - August 1969 to October 1976 - By Finial
The ending of one system of signalling and the beginning of another is a good moment to recall how it developed in those early days from one signal in each direction and one train running, to a system capable of signalling two trains during peak hours.
It all began in 1969 when Mike Hanscomb and Steve Clark joined the QRS and offered to put a starting signal at the end of the platform for the Society's first Open Days in August. Steve Clark was the wizard behind the Beckonscot automatic signalling system, all done very cleverly through Post Office Telephone Relays and for a while it looked as though something similar might sprout at Quainton! He had some interesting and novel ideas, which would have fascinated all enthusiasts in the field of electrical energy and would have driven the rest of us barmy! Fortunately Mike knew as much about electricity as Steve, though Steve had the edge on him when it came to the unusual things you could make a Post Office Telephone Relay do. But luck was on our side - BR Relays won't do the unusual!
So the S & T Department was born (Shouting and Telepathy as some wit in Loco christened them!) By August 1969 there were three regular members and three part time. By the beginning of 1970 there were 7 full time members, one of them an ex BR Lineman. The system in its infancy was crude, one signal in each direction. The platform starter was worked electrically on the "one release one pull" system. We were working on the normal method for single lines i.e., a visible token, and were lucky to find an ex GWR occupation key instrument. For a train to leave the Station the key had to be withdrawn from the instrument and put into the pouch and handed to the Driver. The key was electrically released by the Signalman at the barrier pressing a plunger. When he did so the lock in the key instrument lifted and the key could be turned to the free position and removed. At this point the barrier would be lowered, providing the line was clear, completing another circuit and the signal could be cleared.
Lack of leverage in the shape of a Ground Frame meant our Platform starter had to be worked by electricity and we were lucky enough to acquire a Westinghouse electrical signal motor. Power was provided by second hand car batteries and old BR Relays did the rest. Of course we were working only one train during the August and October Open Days in 1969, Juno or Sir Thomas being the motive power. The track wasn't marvellous either and we chuffed slowly up and down with our enthralled passengers. We were excited and happy at the prospect of improving the signalling as soon as we could get our hands on the equipment we needed. It wasn't easy to find, one had to sniff it out and rely on the grapevine for information about what BR were discarding and where.
Our first stroke of luck came when we heard about a BR S & T training school that was closing down. By early 1970 masses of equipment, bought for a song, had reached the site, but still no Ground Frame. We were destined to "go electric" to begin with. So in 1970 Block working was introduced and, after a very shaky start during the Easter Open Days when the system refused to function until the Monday, two train running became the order of the day. A two lever Ground Frame was found at International Alloys and promptly installed at South, things were looking up!
By 1971 we had found a second 2 lever Ground Frame and it was installed at the Station. We now had 2 signals in the Down direction South Down Home and Station Home and had installed 2 Block instruments, 2 Block bells, 2 Train Describers (real museum pieces. privately owned and on loan) 5 telephones, 24 interlocking relays, 6 repeaters, many feet of location wiring and yards of underground cable, 100 terminals, 9 fuses and 13 assorted batteries. It worked, though sometimes there were problems with reluctant relays and flat batteries. Some of the batteries wouldn't hold their charge for a whole weekend and had to be taken back on the Sunday evening to charge them for the next day. 1971 also saw the introduction of the TRTS (Train Ready To Start) system which the Guards used during one train running to let the Signalman know they were ready to leave. It was the year we managed to get hold of a Facing Point Lock. At one time it was intended to have it operated by a pneumatic point machine but the idea was, fortunately, abandoned.
By the end of the 1971 August Open Days the relays in some of the "non-vital" circuits were showing signs of deterioration and on more than one occasion flags had to be used and just at Pete Stanbridge was taking a BR pal of his round the site too! He had some pithy things to say! These problems led us to consider other modes of operation and London Transport were approached to see if they had a miniature lever frame to spare. They had, and hopes were high that 1972 would see us operating the point machine and all the station signals from a power frame at the end of the platform, with all the safety interlocking between functions achieved mechanically.
The LT frame was bought privately, at a low price because it was incomplete, and then unfortunately proved to be too difficult to modify for the jobs it was to do. So 1973 saw us with the same system as before excepting that now we had some more second hand BR relays which were screwed onto removable shelves and wired to 8 way plugs. This considerably reduced the time required for installing the system on Open Days and Steaming Sundays. Steve Clark's original "Post Office Key Switch" panels were beginning to show signs of wear and tear and 2 new ones were built and wired up by Chris Hanscomb. These were also made to plug in.
By 1974 preliminary plans had been drawn up for a fully mechanical system and we heard about a 20 lever Ground Frame at Tring which was redundant. The Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway also wanted a frame and agreed to share it with us. On 8th September half the frame plus a quantity of point rodding reached Quainton and energetic members began excavating the bank, opposite the platform, ready for its installation. The Facing Point Lock had finally been installed after the station point had been re-sleepered. 1975 would see the beginning of the end of the electrical system.
The end came quite differently from what we had expected, because in 1975 we learnt that the DOE were to inspect our site and pronounce on our method of operating. Major Olver told us that we must no longer have a system that required drivers to pass any signals at danger when the signalling system was not in operation. Prior to 1975 we had placed crosses on the signals to denote that the system was out of use. This had always been done on Steaming Sundays if no Signalmen were available. Now we would have to re-think our method of operating.
Dennis Howells, an S & T Inspector was asked for his advice, and plans were drawn up for a fully mechanical system worked from a 20 lever frame. Leighton Buzzard were persuaded to part with the 10 levers of the Tring frame and these were bought privately and subsequently donated to the Society. More equipment was needed and two more FPL's reached Quainton in the boot of a member's car.
By the end of 1975 S & T realised that the electrical system was nearly life expired. The old BR relays, which had done such sterling work were in danger of producing "wrong side" failures. They were becoming affected by the damp in the S & T box van where they were stored and on several occasions had to be taken home to dry out for several days. One member's house became used to having relays on the kitchen mantelpiece! The system was coaxed into working for 1976 by David Simcox and Robin Wickenden while more equipment for the new mechanical system was slowly being collected. By the end of the season S & T had to say farewell to the electrical innovations which had kept the services running, not without problems, since those first Open Days in 1969.
Now a new chapter begins. None of the original members who began it all in 1969 are in the department. A new lot under a new Chairman now start where we did in 1969 - with one train running and the excitement and interest of installing a new system. It will be harder work, in many ways, because a mechanical system means masses of concrete point rodding stools to be buried in the ground with all the attendant ironmongery; interlocking to be cut and interlocking trays to be assembled; point rodding runs to be laid and the complexities of compensators to be mastered, but in the end we will have the most comprehensively signalled yard in the preservation movement, with Signalmen trained in the art of working a mechanical box. The system will be of even more interest to the public because it will no longer be hybrid and even a move from the yard to the platform road will have to be signalled correctly from the Signal Box.
What are the lessons to be learnt from the past 7 years? It is so easy to be wise with hindsight but looking back on it all it becomes clear that we should not have been so keen to go for 2 train running before we had managed to obtain more equipment. Finance was always a problem, in the preservation movement it always will be, but we learnt the hard way that old equipment is bound to lead to unexpected problems and we would have been wiser to have taken things more slowly. The problems had their funny sides such as the day a damaged fibre socket allowed an eight way plug to be plugged-in one hole further round. The resulting chaos was extraordinary, with block bells working when "line clear" was pegged and heaven knows what else! It took 2 hours before someone finally discovered what was wrong.
S & T spent £350 in 7 years and will not have to be surprised that the next system will cost them considerably more, because this time it has to be right, from the start. The days of experimenting are over. Quainton is now part of the established preservation scene.
Text © Quainton Railway Society / Photographs © Quainton Railway Society or referenced photographer
Page Updated: 12 November 2017