The four classic destination lightboxes at Earl’s Court tube station, dating from 1905 have started working again after they were restored and connected to a new signalling system being rolled out on the railway.

The restored lightbox destination indicators (c) Luca Marino / TfL

The destination boards are a legacy of past times, with a simple arrow lighting up next to the destinations to indicate where the next train is heading to. While less informative than modern displays, they are a much-loved bit of heritage, and when they were switched off last year, it raised concerns that they would be permanently disabled.

The lightboxes were added to the station in 1905 when the District line switched from steam trains to electric and a new signalling system was installed. This new electric signalling system enabled each train to be identified in advance and led to the introduction of the lightboxes in the same year.

The lightboxes in 1905 (c) London Transport Museum

It’s the latest upgrade of the signalling system that’s underway at the moment that caused the lightboxes to be taken out of action, and TfL was faced with a choice of either disabling the lightboxes, or connecting them to the new signals as well.

And they took the decision to restore the display signs and to make them work with 21st-century signals.

It took the engineers 16 months to restore these historic lightboxes and connect them to the modern signalling system, ensuring these over 100 year-old artefacts can play a role in the daily operation of the station for decades to come.

The destination plates have been changed as part of the refurbishment process and are exactly the same specification as the previous ones, made of vitreous enamel, with the same colour and TfL commissioned Johnson font. The destination plates were designed by Isle of Wight railway sign-maker, AJ Wells, which has been providing London Underground with signage for almost three decades. The original destinations no longer in use have been replaced with the most common final destinations and arranged in a more customer friendly way, making this historic information board useful for the present day.

The improved lightboxes also illuminate a “first eastbound train this platform” sign for when eastbound trains via Victoria or through central London are expected in both platforms – making it easier for customers to choose the quickest train.

The restoration of the Earl’s Court lightboxes is part of the Four Lines Modernisation programme, which is replacing old and unreliable infrastructure on the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines with automatic train control signalling. Without restoration, the lightboxes wouldn’t have functioned with the new signalling, leaving customers without the most prominent indication of the destination for the next District line train from the platforms.

To bring the lightboxes into the 21st century, all the works were completed on site during overnight engineering hours, including accessing the lightboxes and finding space for cables and other hardware without compromising the sightlines and familiar features on the station.

Overnight engineering work (c) TfL

Edmund Bird, TfL Heritage Manager, said: “The Earl’s Court’s lightboxes are significant historic features of the District line we have retained and brought into modern-day standards as part of the Four Lines Modernisation project. While we work hard to bring the District line’s signalling to the standards seen on the Victoria, Northern and Jubilee lines, we are constantly considering how to maintain the railway’s heritage that makes London Underground so globally renowned. It was a brilliant experience to be part of the team who restored these historic assets and I’m glad that they will still be functioning for decades to come, helping our customers get around.”

TfL has submitted the restored lightboxes as an entry for the 2022 National Railway Heritage Awards. They’ll find out of they won on 6th December.

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12 comments
  1. Tim Dore says:

    I know the destinations had to be replaced but there is an element of Trigger’s broom in such restorations isn’t there?

  2. Maurice Reed says:

    A definite 👍 thumbs up for TFL.

  3. harry says:

    Not just for heritage, but there are good examples where the old signage was ten times better than the new signage.

    I wish I could post a photo, but that’s not possible in a comment. But I give Walthamstow Central as an example where the old sign needs to be brought back into service — this time, for functionality reasons as much as for heritage.

    As you approach the platforms at Walthamstow Central, there’s a big and unmissable NEXT TRAIN indicator, with arrows pointing left and right. It did the job perfectly. Except that it’s no longer lit up, so both arrows are equally visible and it gives the impression that BOTH trains will depart at the same time.

    Behind it is a small electronic display with arrows that are so tiny most people probably don’t even see that they’re there. OK, so it gives departure times as well, but that’s not what you need to know. It’s whether to turn left or right, which the old sign did perfectly well and the new sign fails abysmally. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the new sign was placed 10 feet in front of the old sign so you see it first, but it’s hidden away 10 feet behind it, the extra distance making it even harder to read.

    Replacing the lamps in the old signs with LEDs shouldn’t need much work. A bit of simple javascript could decode information on an appropriate HTML page to decide whether to light the left or right buttons. And a simple USB interface could operate reed relays to safely isolate the left or right arrow.

    None of this is rocket science.

    • James says:

      Walthamstow came to mind when I reading it. As Diamond Geezer would put it: installed by cretins.

  4. Clive Penfold says:

    Excellent. This sign give simple clear information that you can understand at a glance. There should be more like it.

  5. Gerry says:

    Sadly, the restored lightboxes don’t look completely authentic to me. They used a different font, and it’s taken at least 50 years to phase it out completely !

    This 1957 photo shows a new Acton Town plate in Johnston font, but the older font was still in service in 2007.

    The earlier photo also seems to show some Richmond and Wimbledon trains not stopping at Turnham Green and West Brompton.

    • Matthew says:

      Agreed. I really like that they did it but wish they had stuck to how it looked. Functionally it’s now only a nice to have so the aesthetic should have been preserved even if the old font is marginally less accessible. And even with the decision to update font, I think the lack of margin/padding between the destinations makes it less attractive and clear. Still TfL thanks for keeping it going and particularly for ‘first train this platform’!

    • Gerry says:

      Sorry, some gremlin meant that same link appeared for both photos ! Here’s the correct one for 1957.

  6. JP says:

    Agree wholeheartedly about the font, it’s not as elegant and there’s a whiff of playschool potato print about some ~ especially the shouty BARKING (although if any of these words has a claim to being loud then ’tis this one [sorry]).

    Nevertheless.

    Be still my beating heart!

    I always look to these first in the increasingly forlorn hope that next train and destination would one day be re-lit. Frabjous day. Dreams can come true. Thank you TfL. You do have a soul! Thank you.

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