In a few weeks time, one of the best of its grade of railway signal boxes will be torn down, but before that, there is a chance to go inside and have a look.
Banbury North signal box is the last of five such boxes in the area which is a complex set of junctions seeing passenger traffic coming up from Bournmouth and London towards Birmingham, or freight traffic coming up from Southampton.
Over the past few years, Banbury railway has undergone a major upgrade, turning one-way tracks into bi-directional, and adding an extra platform to the station, all to improve traffic across a vast area.
But, that also calls for improved signaling, and it’s time to say good bye to old human operated levers and bring in silicon chips and computer screens in a distant office.
Due to the unusually good quality of preservation of the signal box, there was a campaign to try and save it, probably moved to another location, but it was not possible to secure the necessary funds in time.
As a compromise, Network Rail agreed to delay the demolition to allow tours.
The reason it would have had to be moved became very clear as access is along a very narrow track-side path barely inches from a railway line, which is not conducive to public access.
Tours are nearly sold out (a few places remain), and the organisers have been pleasantly surprised at the high level of interest. On my tour, there was a cluster of obvious “men who ride trains”, but three families with very young future girls and boys who will ride trains.
Although during the tour one of the girls was noticeably more interested in her mobile phone.
The curious thing is why do signal boxes, probably more than almost any other part of the railway’s infrastructure provoke such an emotion and interest? Why the massive campaign to save an old industrial box?
They are the lighthouses of the railways. Often thought of as remote rural outposts in the middle of the country, where a local man (always a man) lives in a cottage and goes up to pull levers and send steam trains on their merry way.
Always cheerful, these isolated policemen of the railways are imagined as waving to cheery train drivers, with a kettle always on, the stove keeping them warm, and a book to soak away the long hours.
It’s an idyllic image that tugs at the heartstrings when we hear they are being made redundant.
Just as the lighthouses have been slowly replaced by satellite signals, and those that remain controlled from hundreds of miles away, so the railway signals are also changing.
Until a few weeks ago, Banbury signals were controled physically, with levers in the box linked to the junctions by wires and rods. Pulling one moved the other. A very tactile form of control. Very physical, tangible. It was reality in motion.
Underneath the floor, the frame relay — a massive maze of mechanical hardware so rarely seen converted lever pulls above into rods and wires below that tied the box to the railway outside.
Above the levers a curious hybrid of technologies. Old brass bells, jerry rigged switches, softly glowing lamps, even an old computer.
It’s a mix of fairly old, really old, and good grief, just how old is that?
A single man working alone was expected to control all the switches and signals on the northern side of Banbury station and coordinate the same with their counterpart on the southern side of the station.
A telegraph linked the two boxes, and tapping a switch in one rang a bell in the other. A range of bells with with a different tone to indicate which switch to be pulled. The number of rings to tell which sort of train to expect.
A complex and old fashioned way of working that would baffle the smartphone generation.
It’s hardly a calm environment either, with a range of bells ringing to indicate train movements, confirmed by knocking on switches to return the signal, slamming of heavy metal levers back and forth to open and close the junctions.
A fast moving noisy environment as the signal box operator weaves paths through the complex junction for trains that weft their way past at speed. It’s a delicate ballet, performed in an industrial environment by hardy men.
But limiting, as the signal box’s wires and rods cannot reach more than 350 yards from the lever. Which is why in older days there were so many more signal boxes. Today, local motors by the junction can be controlled from, well, anywhere.
With silicon able to react faster than a human ever could, more signal boxes are being closed down and replaced by remote control. The big upgrade at Banbury simply couldn’t cope with delays caused by slow old fashioned levers and switches any more.
A while back, the old box was decommissioned.
As final farewell, as two rarely used levers were pulled. They pushed small detonators onto the track, which are an emergency warning to stop a train that simply has to be stopped. That final night, the detonators were pulled into position by the levers of last resort as a farewell gift to the last train to pass under control of man and lever. A series of small explosions under the train marked the final journey. The driver knew what to expect, but whether the passengers knew what just happened remains a mystery.
So, the old box now redundant, in October, this lighthouse of the railways will be torn down. The men darting around the box replaced by a man in an office chair watching a computer screen. Its rods and levers replaced by electrons and optic fibres.
A tangible link between man and machine is broken.