April 28th 2007 marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of Wansford Signal Box on the Nene Valley Railway. It is one of the largest working signalboxes in preservation with a 45-lever frame and is the nerve-centre of the railway's operations.
This grade two-listed structure is a typical London and North Western Railway two-storey Standard Type 5 structure with a brick base, wooden operating floor and slate roof. It is similar to numerous other boxes built in the same period both on the Northampton to Peterborough line and generally on the extensive LNWR network.
To many who have yet to visit the NVR, the box may appear surprisingly familiar. It has featured in film and TV productions including James Bond's 'Octopussy' and more recently in a 2005 BBC TV 'Dalzeil & Pascoe' drama featuring a football motor coach accident.
The London and Birmingham Railway built the 47 mile Northampton to Peterborough line in 1845, from a Junction with their main line at Blisworth, as a single line with a passing place at Thrapston, the mid point. The original arrangements were minimal and rather primitive with movements being controlled by men with flags by day or with lights at night. The following year, a further track was added and for the next 30 years the Northampton line was operated on a time interval system, in which the passage of a train along the line was separated from that of its predecessor by an interval of time, usually a certain number of minutes. As traffic gradually increased the need for a safer system grew.
In the 1860's there were three Railway Policemen (at first termed 'Bobbys' but later known as signalmen) at Wansford, Joseph Blain, Henry Newland, William Sewell.
With the opening of the Stamford line in 1867 the signalling arrangements would have needed modification. It is probable that two signal cabins would have been provided, one by the junction east of the river bridge and one by the level crossing. However, these would have offered only basic shelter for signalmen as the levers for points and signals would have been out in the open beside the track they controlled with no interlocking. An old photograph of 1878 shows a single storey stone crossing keeper's lodge by the level crossing. The Stamford trains had terminated at Wansford since 1867. However in 1871 a dispute arose over rent payments between the LNWR and the Stamford and Essendine Railway over its Wansford branch junction. As no agreement was forthcoming the junction was removed.
In 1877 Stephen Reay L&NWR Company Secretary notified the Board of Trade that “the junction with the Stamford line at Wansford, which has for some time been disused, has been reinstated”. There followed an inspection by Col. William Yolland who was very critical of the existing layout. The S&ER Junction signal box controlled points at the north end of a short section of double track that was 198 yards distant, too far for what was considered safe working from a box located to the south of the Junction. At Wansford station itself the existing Signal Cabin located between the east end of the main platform and the level crossing, had levers in the open and incomplete interlocking between points and signals. That was also true for the Junction. In 1878 the LNWR applied to parliament for additional powers to improve the station's facilities. More land to the north west provided room for proper access via point work to the goods yard that enabled removal of the original wagon turnplates. In September 1879 when a further inspection occurred, a new signal box (No 1) with 24 levers had been built to control the tunnel side of the station and access to the Goods Yard. The old cabin (No 2) between the main platform and the level crossing now had 34 levers. (No 3) by the Stamford line junction, was probably a new structure with 15 levers.
These improvements were made necessary by the rapid growth of traffic through Wansford. On March 1st 1878 Stamford services resumed probably from a bay platform, if it had not been built before 1871. In the 1870s the Northampton line was converted to the absolute block method of signalling and in 1879 a line from Yarwell Junction, just west of Wansford Tunnel to Seaton in Rutland was opened. This enabled through services to run between East Anglia-Peterborough-Rugby and the North West of England. The short Great Northern Fletton Loop line between Peterborough and Longville Junction opened in 1883 and a GNR service commenced to Leicester. From the Census returns it is known that Benjamin Clarke was a signalman for at least 20 years between 1871 and 1891. John Waters was enumerated in 1881, 1891 and 1901. A Henry D??? was recorded in 1881 and a Charles Kidsley in 1891and 1901. Also by 1901 Robert Thomas Dawkes, George De Bow and Henry Frederick Shaw were signalmen.
In 1907 the signalboxes were combined into one and Wansford was provided with a 60 lever mechanical frame and controlled trains both through the station and at Wansford Junction, just to the east of the Nene river bridge, for the line to Stamford and also operated the level crossing gates.
During the 1920's Wansford signalmen would have noticed a steady growth of traffic along the Great North Road and vehicles crashing into the level crossing gates became a frequent occurrence.. Amid these reductions in 1959 there was some good news. The opening of Wansford bypass came as a great relief to hard-pressed signalmen.
Before the present A1 Wansford bypass that was opened in 1959, the crossing was in fact a notorious bottleneck on the Great North Road.
Over a period of years the NVR has interviewed former Wansford Signalmen who have great stories to tell, of the fear of German spies and saboteurs in the First World war and of an accident that left bullet holes in the box's roof beams, of a 'whiskey galore' episode during the 1930's and of black market dealing during the Second World war. Join one of the Guided tours to learn more about the box's long history.
The withdrawal of passenger services on the hopelessly uneconomic Wansford-Stamford branch came on 1st July 1929 and the Junction was removed two years later. At some point the corresponding levers No's 1to 16 in the frame were also removed. In September 1948 the points leading to the bay platform were eliminated. In 1957 Wansford station close to passengers. Through passenger services from Peterborough to Northampton ceased in 1964 and those to Rugby in 1966. British Rail finally closed the box in September 1971 and the surviving stub of the route to Oundle/Nassington in 1972, the track layout having been reduced to a single line past the box and Wansford goods yard had been sold.
For a time the locking room even served as a chicken coop!
Wansford Signal Box in January 1971. By this time the only passenger services were the Oundle School specials at the start and end of each term, the Iron Ore trains from Nassington Quarry had just ceased. Only a single track remained over the river bridge and most of the points and signals had been removed or disconnected. The box was only manned as required and its days were numbered. Photograph Barry Butler/NVR Archives
The interior of Wansford Signal Box in April 1974 soon after the Peterborough Railway Society had obtained access. With few operational levers, the box being the official registered office of the PRS Ltd. and the only usable building on site had become a general store and dumping ground. At least its future was now secure.
However all was not lost and with the advent of the heritage line the structure received a new lease of life. In 1973 a lease was agreed between British Rail, the Peterborough Development Corporation and the then Peterborough Railway Society and the chickens faced eviction! The line was formally handed over to the Society in an agreement signed by the Chairman of the Corporation and the Chairman of the Society during a simple ceremony at Wansford Signal Box on the 26th February, 1974. Over the next few years Wansford box was made weather proof, cleaned and restored to the original LNWR colours. New track was laid, the points and signals reconnected and the level crossing gates made operational. Further second hand track and signalling equipment were acquired. For a time as the only suitable building on site, apart from a brick hut, the box became the PRS Ltd. Registered Office and had the only GPO phone installed!
In February 1982 Wansford Signal Box received designation as a Grade 2 listed structure. The official description mentioned the “brick ground storey with timber-framed and boarded first storey. Welsh slated roof with gable bargeboards and finials. Wooden stair to signal box entrance with glazed door. Large four-paned windows arranged in pairs or groups of three. Segmental brick arches to recessed ground storey panels and four-windows shaped to arches. Signal box fittings complete.” The adjacent station and railwaymen's cottages had received grade 2 status in December 1973.
Over the years Wansford Signal Box has featured in numerous films and TV productions. The James Bond “Octopussy” team have cleverly created an Eastern European scene.
Although in preservation the station layout has changed considerably, the box still contains many original features including its classic 'stirrup' lever frame, a LNWR company speciality built to its own unconventional but rugged design. Externally the box has been restored to its original LNWR paint scheme.
In the last few years some structural movement has become evident. In 2002 the LNWR Society offered advice and Richard Foster, an authority on LNWR signalling, undertook a structural survey. The problem was that while the rear (north) brick wall extended down to the foundations at the foot of the embankment, the front (rail side) was on made up ground. A degree of settlement occurred particularly in the middle of the front wall. In fact the whole structure was no longer quite vertical nor square with more pronounced movement at the west (front) end. Given that the box was then double its design lifespan, such problems were not unexpected! In the last few years' remedial work has taken place and the bracing adjusted. However window repairs have to be individually made to fit. A replacement new door has also been made to the old design. It is hoped that the original style of oil lamps may one day be restored for use on special occasions. Three brackets still exist attached to beams above the operating floor in front of the Lever frame. These would add more character that the existing electric lighting. In the short term there are plans to tidy up the interior including sanding down and varnish the wood floor or the purchase of lino to an authentic design.
The NVR is due to celebrate the centenary as part of the 1960's weekend on 28th and 29th April 2007 and will run a small series of events throughout the year - not bad for a structure with a 50 year 'design' life!
As traditional mechanical signal boxes are now almost extinct on Network Rail, advances in signalling technology and the advent of electronic signalling centres ('power boxes') allows signalling to be concentrated in a few key centres that can control large areas, it is only on the Heritage Railways that the public can see a genuine box in its original setting functioning in the way its designers intended. At the commencement of its second century Wansford Signal Box is ready to show further generations of visitors a way of life now passed into history. For more information a Wansford Signal Box guide is available for visitors. It is intended to offer the public guided tours of the box at quiet times to mark its centenary.
Today, the signalbox at Wansford is the hub of the railways operating department. As well as being the major signalling installation, it houses the railway's telephone exchange, radio base station, internet gateway and signing-on point for operating staff. The NVR's signalmen have many different aspects to their duties. Here is a glimpse of some of them.
Perhaps the major feature of the 'box is the wheel that opens and closes the level crossing gates across the Old Great North Road. On a busy gala day, additional volunteers, referred to as 'runners', are drafted in to help the signalman and a common task for them is to open and close the gates on the signalman's instructions. It's a good introduction to signalling for new recruits and a great help to the signalman's aching back! Runners require very little knowledge of the railway as they work under the very close supervision of the qualified signalman.
Of course the signalman also has to know how to work the array of signals, points, locks, gates etc etc that are his responsibility. Altogether, the signalbox has 45 levers, the level crossing wheel, two staff machines and one set of block bells. During their training, which normally lasts about 12 months, the signalmen will spend many days working alongside and under the supervision of qualified signalmen in the 'box. As the trainee becomes increasingly experienced so the qualified signalman will take a backseat and allow the trainee to work the 'box himself but with an experienced eye watching him.
The health and safety legislation that governs the operation of the UK's main rail network also applies in the main to preserved railways such as the NVR. All signalmen undergo a thorough training programme run by qualified volunteers before they are passed out. A significant part of the procedures they have to learn involves is the keeping of an up-to-date train register. The signalman records all train movements made along the railway along with a note of any significant safety related incidents that occur.
The signalman has to know about changes to operating procedures, safety advice and any recent signalling problems. The noticeboard above the train register desk provides a focal opint for all this information.
The NVR operates a private radio system based on a transmitter in Wansford Signalbox. Mobile units are installed in the guards' compartments on passenger services and handheld mobiles are used on freight services and by those working on the trackside. The system is a valuable addition to the private phone network that also covers the railway's length.
Finally, one of the most important of duties is keeping the coal and kindling supplies replenished. The signalbox is like a very big greenhouse and in winter the coal stove can make it a very cosy place to be, filling the 'box with the smell of coal smoke and the signalman's lunch cooking.
And after all the training and hard work comes the realisation of why you did it all: a signalbox is the best place there is to watch trains from.