Saturday, 25 August 2012
Signalling The Future
You might consider it a faithful old Grandfather. Rail travellers passing through Stourbridge Junction might barely notice it. But from the halcyon days of steam to the air-conditioned trains of today, Stourbridge Middle Signal Box (to give it it's correct title - there used to be 3) has faithfully served the railway for 111 years.
This weekend, however, the old faithful is finally being retired, as a new signalling system, controlled from Saltley in Birmingham, is commissioned.
For the travelling public, nothing will change. Likely improvements will follow, with reductions in delays should problems occur. For rail enthusiasts - and people like me who work at Stourbridge Junction - it is the end of an era.
Built in 1901 to accompany the "new" Stourbridge Junction station (the original "Stourbridge" station was slightly north of the original site), it was one of 3 (Stourbridge North closing in 1978 and Stourbridge South in 1973). It was responsible for an area just north of Hagley to Jewellery Quarter.
Sister boxes at Blakedown, Kidderminster and Hartlebury are also closing as part of the scheme and the national roll-out will include closures in Walsall, Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Stafford in the coming years. Some 19th Century signal boxes, with mechanical levers, are listed, and will remain in situe, but Stourbridge isn't one that has listed status. It is understood that the building may remain however, under the ownership of Chiltern Railways, which has a maintenance facility and staff based at Stourbridge Junction, although this isn't confirmed at the time of writing. The name plate, attached to the side of the building, will be auctioned off for charity.
It's all progress, of course, but, like all old buildings, it has such a fascinating history, both functional, and of course for the people that have worked there over the years.
As someone who had to visit the signal box as part of my duties driving the Stourbridge Shuttle, it will be strange not to have to climb the steps first thing in the morning or last thing at night. The building has a special aura to it, and of course being an important working building played a vital role every day in the running of the local railway.
Nationally, more than 800 signal boxes will be replaced by 14 new signalling centres, and we will be more reliant on heritage railways like the Severn Valley Railway to see images of our proud railway past, still in working condition.
Of course we can't stop the tide of progress. And if it means more efficient railways, would we want to?
But it was nonetheless a moment to pause for reflection after I finished my shift on the branch line last night, to the continuous achievements of signalers, who have worked continuously at Stourbridge Junction for 111 years, keeping our trains running safely and efficiently, from a wonderful old building.
Please note that the photograph was taken with special permission. Access to the area from where the photograph was taken is not available to the general public.