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Stories from Smudger

Stories from Smudger

I've recently received some correspondence from a retired member of staff, now in his 70's.  I'll refer to him by his nickname as he was known whilst with LT - 'Smudger'

Before recounting what (I hope) will be the first of many tales I'll 'introduce' him by reproducing part of his very first e-mail to me. It reads.....

'I started work in the Cloakroom of Hammersmith & City station back in 1946. From there I became box lad at Kennington under Charles Copes guidance to name just one. From there to Golders Green as box lad until 1949 when National Service caught up with me. A year at Longmoor the remainder in Germany with a Field Regiment.

Returning I trained and was appointed Signalman at Barnet, that was 1951. In 1953 signalman at Euston then relief signalman from 1954 aged 24. I trained and covered all the boxes on the Northern and Northern & City line and was involved in automation that saw many of the old hands throw in the towel after saying it would never happen.'

So, that was my first contact. I'm now reproducing a tale which shows quite graphically the conditions in which our signalmen used to work in the days before the large signal centres that now control large areas of the system.

Before these 'Regulating Rooms' came along, there were small signal cabins at any location where automatic signals could not be used.  I believe that many of these were very small and - as the tale that follows illustrates - the conditions were pretty poor.

A term that will reoccur is that of 'box lads' or 'box boys'.  These were trainee signallers, and they did roles such as writing out the sheets used by the signallers to record train movements, clean the cabins and make the tea - essentially all the more menial tasks.  Even today our trainee signallers are still often referred to as 'box boys'.

The account goes as follows.....

If my memory is correct, there were 22 signal cabins on the Northern Line and 2 on the Northern And City. Of these only 6 had flush toilet facilities. All of those were out in the open. Those cabins manned around the clock had the use of a bucket. 15 boxes were manned 8 of them around the clock, the remainder were two shift. If your need involved 'solids' you had to be relived by a Foreman, Inspector or Station Master.

Over the years this became a joke. Foremen and Inspectors even Station Masters failed to learn their local Box. I think due to the short lengths of time they remained or possibly the automatic signalling plans had been leaked out? I personally in open boxes in the rush hour have 'shut down' to take a 'dump' due to the lack of locally qualified staff. At boxes where there were box lads you put your trust in them. Many of them are now signalmen in their own right.

I'm afraid that this type of training from experienced staff is now non existent? Working in Cobourg Street Regulating room was a gas and they were a great team.

His next tale to arrive reads as follows.......

Working through the signalling grades from box lad to signalman then relief signalman gave one a fantastic knowledge that came in handy when the boxes were gradually closed down and their control passed to a central location. Now that was something else. All we had was the knowledge of lever operation. This was something very different. One button controlling a whole route when in manual operation which was frequent in those early days whilst we sorted out some of the automated stuff. We had no training at all, just our background knowledge of the areas now automated.

What is lacking with today's regulators is the absence of what you can do within the local layout and what you can get away with in an emergency? But then the outside staff were old hands as were the train crews. (I feel many of them learnt a great deal from some of the moves we made and all legal, well some of them?) But there were moments when things just didn't go right, mainly due to a drivers lack of experience of the area or just plain oversight?

In those far off days everyone knew everyone. A signalman could make signs from his box to a passing train and the driver would know immediately what was required of him once he reached the station. In the uncoupling days it was a riot or more like a mad house. Making sure the units to couple were the correct way round or in time table order, the latter not always possible. I have been at Morden when five four car units were to arrive with no sign of a three car that should arrive first. Yes, they were hectic times where a central cabin would be working on continuous train numbers with no resemblance of a time table operation. All this possibly due to a 'one under' incident, a signal or point failure or even a train failure. When you think that four trains passed through Kennington every minute and a half it will give you some idea of the congestion at times. Back in the late 40's and 50 the Northern operated a 100 trains during the rush hour. I often wonder if the Company ever got back to the figure? When I left I think it was 95.

It was only due to others stupidity that certain safety aspects were applied to the lines. Train approach was one that to a signalman was a pain in the arse. A train would practically come to a stop before the signal cleared. The fact that a train could reach a speed of 35 MPH before reaching a station that was supposedly being protected from an over run to us was madness. It branded all drivers as idiots? Mind you I had an incident of a train leaving Edgware in the wrong direction due to the driver seeing the point throw (only part of the route) he started up. Realising his mistake when his train didn't switch over to the correct track he stopped, put the train in reverse and went back to where he started from. The incident was never recorded as far as I know and only the Foreman at Burnt Oak who rang me to report that his starting signal had switched to red by its self. I never let on. I should add that this was an empty test train out of Golders Green workshops on which the driver had failed to notice the trip cock was disengaged.

That driver in later years became a great asset in getting one out of a tight spot when you needed it.

I hope there'll be more of these stories to come!

Well, my wishes hopes have been fulfilled! My story of my 'wrong 'un' has inspired Smudger to his keyboard again and here is the first of a couple of stories related to the topic in hand!

Not wishing to rub it in regarding your admitted blunder. If it helps, taking a wrong un was quite common back in the late 40's and 50's from whence it is an acknowledged fact that the lack of concentration was the prime cause of many of these wrong moves. But very common amongst crews covering rest days where there regular weekly operations change from day to day.

In my experience as a relief signalman on the Northern Line, wrong un's took place at most junctions. Some of these were due to miss information on the part of the signalman but compiled in the driver accepting the signal in the first place? As you yourself stated, you should have stopped and allowed a release to take place.

As signalman, helping a crew to get out of taking a wrong un became one of amusement at times but a great deal of this help came from being on site to operate a get out. Something not possible in regulating rooms.

One of two incidents I recall that took place at Kennington in the morning rush hour was a Charing X train accepting the city route. My co partner got the driver to reverse back into Kennington sidings then back out with the correct route. Loss of time two minutes. The amusing yet frightening part of this move was the train was full of passengers who were not charged for the additional trip.

Basically the way around a crew accepting a wrong move was to detrain and run light to Camden Town where they would pick up their normal route, now out of turn and five minutes late. It was possible to cover up the whole incident through out the line, much to the train crews relief.

A similar incident that happened to me at Finchley Central was a Finchley reversing train out of turn with a Mill Hill train. Sending what I thought was the Mill Hill train on its way when what should have been the Finchley reverser turned out to be the Mill Hill Train. Whoops someone failed to pass on information. Detrain and send it to the siding for it's own turn.

Now the train at Mill Hill was a City train and no City Trains are routed out of Mill Hill. Naturally the shit hit the fan when passengers for Tottenham Court Road ended up at Kings X.

Harry (Laughing boy) Hill was the Divisional Inspector (They had titles we all understood then) when the following day he came to see me wanting to know what had happened. I pleaded ignorance. When he informed me that he was going to see the crew of the Finchley Train I'm afraid my bowel twitched a little. When he returned he was even more perplexed since the crew said they were a Finchley reverser and that's where they went. Harry went off and when the train came out of the siding I went down to thank the driver. His reply had me grinning for days.

"I don't know what the silly old bugger was on about, we were rest day yesterday".

When Harry retired I was covering Camden Town and he popped in to say good bye. I couldn't resist reminding him of the item he chased years earlier. He recalled it and had a good laugh over it remarking that he knew something had gone on but as usual signalmen and it seems some train crews stick together?

I've received a further story from Smudger concerning an incident which, potentially, could have had very serious consequences.  There are a number of 'technical' aspects included within the tale which I'll add a little explanation to in appropriate places.

What I am about to relate was reported but I discovered later not fully? It's basically a lesson on safety and the lack of communication. I refrain from mentioning names even though some of the parties have now passed on.

The incident concerns a train stalled northbound at Tottenham Court Road on a Saturday afternoon if I remember correctly. The following train had been carrying out the rules (the procedure for Passing Signals at Danger with authority - more can be read about this here - DD)and was in sight of the stalled train. It was called on ('Calling On' is the means whereby a train is permitted to approach a stalled train - this is usually done either by means of a hand lamp signal or my means of a 'Calling On' light installed on the failed train - DD) by staff and coupled to the failed front section.

I was operating the Camden Town desk at Coburg Street. All Mornington Crescent signals North Bound were placed at danger and the North Bound Charing Cross route to the Barnet branch also placed at danger. The Station Master at Camden Town asked if it was clear for him to send men into the tunnels to secure points (this is done by using a 'Scotch and Clip'; an example of this can be seen in the 'Around the Metropolitan Line Gallery' here - DD) and I gave the okay and advised the controller who was seated behind me behind his glass screen of this fact.

Imagine my shock and horror after 15 minutes to see the 14-car train moving northbound causing me to ask the controller who had given permission for the train to move. When he said he did I explain in no uncertain manner that I had people in the tunnel at Camden Town. Whilst he whitened he did tell me to keep all signal at danger. (As if I would do anything else).

We all held our breath as the train sailed through Mornington Crescent, up the Barnet branch through Camden Town and onto East Finchley. I feared the worst.

The first call I received was from a very irate Station Master at Camden Town who began to scream abuse down the phone at me. (Had it been me I would have done the same) When he calmed down I told him I was not responsible and for him to contact the Line Controller.

It seems all tripcocks on the train were isolated (disconnected, so they would not have performed as they should - that is stopping the train - DD), hence my not being able to stop the train. There should have been a guard on the front portion or even the original train crew to keep an eye on signals. Now I know nothing about 1938 stock other than driving it. But I would have though the crew or what ever would have left the front tripcock engaged? (Quite correct.  The procedure is that the tripcock on the front of the train should have remained 'cut in', though that on the front of the assisting train which is now in the middle of the coupled train) would be 'cut out' - DD) I never found out anything more about the incident and I was never approached for a report.

HSE would have had a field day had anyone been killed. Since those in the tunnel were still there clips were removed and the staff returned to the station. I did have words with one of the staff involved some time latter who had the presence of mind to make use of the interconnecting bolt holes (alcoves in the tunnel walls - DD) of which there are many at Camden Town. To say it was a frightening experience for him was an understatement.



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