Questions about steam era signalling

The DJ

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How did steam loco drivers manage to correctly spot semaphore signals in the dark in an area of open countryside, especially on a freezing cold snowy night?
In this era of individual signal boxes, were there any incidents of a night shift signalman falling asleep in his presumably warm and toasty signal box.
If a driver held at a Danger signal for several minutes walked over to the signal box and discovered the signalman asleep what might the driver do aside from waking him up.
 
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Gloster

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With difficulty and years of practice.

Plenty of cases, a few of which led to accidents, but most of which were covered up.

Anything from a practical joke to a torrent of foul language.
 

Dr Hoo

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How did steam loco drivers manage to correctly spot semaphore signals in the dark in an area of open countryside, especially on a freezing cold snowy night?
In this era of individual signal boxes, were there any incidents of a night shift signalman falling asleep in his presumably warm and toasty signal box.
If a driver held at a Danger signal for several minutes walked over to the signal box and discovered the signalman asleep what might the driver do aside from waking him up.
Spotting individual signals 'in the middle of nowhere' (other than in fog, of course) was remarkably easy. People forget how really dark rural areas used to be before most of the atmosphere was swamped with wasted light from big cities.

(In the Hope Valley it is quite easy to see your way around on many nights because the 'glow' spilling over from Sheffield and Greater Manchester. And don't think about serious star-gazing.)

Ironically it was often in urban areas that semaphore signals were hardest to distinguish. Driving past factories lit up like Christmas trees or alongside busy roads with red rear/brake lights, orange sodium street lights and the odd green traffic light could be a nightmare.
 

DerekC

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Read "Red for Danger" - in particular the story of the crash at Otterington, near Thirsk, on 2nd November 1892. The signalman's baby daughter died the day before. He had no sleep for 36 hours, reported himself unfit, was told he had to work because there wasn't a replacement and went to sleep on the job. He was (unbelievably) convicted of manslaughter of the nine people who died in the subsequent crash, although then being given an absolute discharge.
 

Gloster

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Read "Red for Danger" - in particular the story of the crash at Otterington, near Thirsk, on 2nd November 1892...He was (unbelievably) convicted of manslaughter of the nine people who died in the subsequent crash, although then being given an absolute discharge.
I have to say that in my opinion he was, by the much harsher standards of the day, treated extraordinarily leniently in being given an absolute discharge.
 

MarkyT

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The distant signal was always the most important. If a driver misses a distant at caution and doesn't start slowing quickly they will have little hope of stopping at the next associated home signal. That is why fog signalling personnel were posted at many distant and some other signals in inclement weather affecting visibility, equipped with detonators (officially known as fog signals) to attach to rails for each passing train when a caution or stop needed to be signalled. Later, automated advanced warning systems were developed to replace this procedure which set off an alarm of some kind in the cab that had to be acknowledged by crew to avoid an automatic brake application. In the UK, the GWR were pioneers with this before WW1, and their system had achieved wide application on the busiest main lines by the 1930s. A similar system known as the Crocodile had been developed in France as early as the 1870s and was widely installed. More widespread application in the UK had to wait until the 1950s and the BR AWS system still in use today.
 
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How did steam loco drivers manage to correctly spot semaphore signals in the dark in an area of open countryside, especially on a freezing cold snowy night?
I've often pondered the same question regarding steam days. As well as a longish boiler and sometimes swirling smoke and steam in front of you, there were no windscreen wipers on the two cab windows, so presumably the driver (and sometimes fireman) regularly had to stick their head out of a side window in all sorts of inclement and freezing cold conditions to get a proper look at what the signals ahead were saying.

Particularly since in built-up areas there were often a lot more multiple running lines, goods loops, complicated pointwork at junctions etc. back then, with associated signal gantries, brackets and massed signal lights to try to interpret.

I guess one consolation was most trains travelled a lot more slowly back then, but on the other hand the braking power was not as good (especially unfitted goods trains) if the driver missed a signal.
 

DerekC

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I have to say that in my opinion he was, by the much harsher standards of the day, treated extraordinarily leniently in being given an absolute discharge.
That may be right, but I am wondering how the jury managed to convict him of manslaughter. Even in those days there had to be an element of recklessness or negligence. The inspector's report casts considerable blame on the Otterington station master for not making it clear to the traffic inspector in York that the signalman had declared himself unfit and for not challenging the lack of a replacement. It also brings out two contributory factors - first, that the driver of the goods train which the signalman forgot sat at the Manor House home signal for seven minutes without whistling or sending his fireman to the box and second, that the signalman at Otterington, who was aware of the Manor House man's problem, didn't take any action despite failing to get an "out of section" for the goods train for thirteen minutes.
 

Gloster

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That may be right, but I am wondering how the jury managed to convict him of manslaughter. Even in those days there had to be an element of recklessness or negligence. The inspector's report casts considerable blame on the Otterington station master for not making it clear to the traffic inspector in York that the signalman had declared himself unfit and for not challenging the lack of a replacement. It also brings out two contributory factors - first, that the driver of the goods train which the signalman forgot sat at the Manor House home signal for seven minutes without whistling or sending his fireman to the box and second, that the signalman at Otterington, who was aware of the Manor House man's problem, didn't take any action despite failing to get an "out of section" for the goods train for thirteen minutes.
True. But in those days the legal attitude was that it was his responsibility not to fall asleep at work: he did fall asleep, therefore he was guilty.
 

DerekC

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I've often pondered the same question regarding steam days. As well as a longish boiler and sometimes swirling smoke and steam in front of you, there were no windscreen wipers on the two cab windows, so presumably the driver (and sometimes fireman) regularly had to stick their head out of a side window in all sorts of inclement and freezing cold conditions to get a proper look at what the signals ahead were saying.

Absolutely they did - and to keep any eye on the train behind them as well to make sure it was intact. I don't think there is much appreciation now of just what a challenging job driving a steam locomotive was. Not only were you remembering the road, observing signals, keeping an eye out for hazards and operating the regulator, cutoff and brake, but also taking responsibility for looking after what was a temperamental monster of a machine so that the boiler water level remained within safe limits, steam was used efficiently and there was sufficient to get up banks. And on top of that keeping to time.

Particularly since in built-up areas there were often a lot more multiple running lines, goods loops, complicated pointwork at junctions etc. back then, with associated signal gantries, brackets and massed signal lights to try to interpret.

I guess one consolation was most trains travelled a lot more slowly back then, but on the other hand the braking power was not as good (especially unfitted goods trains) if the driver missed a signal.
A point worth remembering is that there was very little in way of street and other lighting in those days, so semaphore signal lamps would have stood out much better than they do now.
 

edwin_m

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I've seen pictures of Continental steam train drivers wearing goggles, but never in Britain, despite these often being used by those driving early motor cars.
 

WesternLancer

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A point worth remembering is that there was very little in way of street and other lighting in those days, so semaphore signal lamps would have stood out much better than they do now.
But perhaps not so much the case by the 1950s?
 

ChiefPlanner

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But perhaps not so much the case by the 1950s?

Earlier I would say - "municipal gas and water socialism" ( a term launched by the City of Birmingham around 1900) , led to much more possible light distraction to railway staff , as street lighting prevailed - even using the new fangeld electricity. Even earlier the "all right" signal was changed from white to green accordingly. Apart of course from hand signalling where "white" is still OK and "green / yellow" a caution. Red has always normally meant stop apart from confusingly again - "create air / vacuum !"

The railways were always very slow to improve the rear end visibility of trains , the red tail lamp (oil) survived well into the late 20thC. A train's last defence.
 

Andy R. A.

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Luckily I kept a number of my Father's old pocket books from his Road Learning days (Steam and Diesel). Handy guides were not generally provided, and Drivers often made their own, as illustrated. Signal Boxes were more frequent, and little pools of light in the darkness. Listening out for overbridges, tunnels, or the sound of running over an underbridge with a steel deck which would make a different noise aided knowing the location in the dark. Bridges and Tunnels are marked, the Signal Boxes are the green squares with the notation L or R on the left to say which side of the track they were, in this case the Down direction. On the far left are the Line speeds for each location. There are marks by some of the signals to show if they were positioned to the right hand side of the track ( RHS ), along with H= Home signal S = Starter OH = Outer Home AS = Advanced Starter. These form of Route Learning notes came in handy until the piece of line was almost imprinted into the brain, when 'knowing the road' meant exactly that.

SCAN0255.JPG
 

ChiefPlanner

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Very impressive indeed.

Gradient knowledge - critically important in safely handling unfitted freight trains was another "knowledge art" - not just for the front end , but the brakevan end.
 

Taunton

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Even more striking was how the TPO exchange staff, back in the mail vehicles with no forward view, knew just where they were, at night, to extend the exchange apparatus, which in the wrong place would be foul of bridge piers etc.

Likewise all the concern nowadays about keeping up with signing the road. There are very many accounts of where steam services in the past were diverted, or sent off on an unfamiliar run, with just their own wits and abilities, and a certain commonality of signalling to go on. Which the crews of the era seem to have handled.
 

Merle Haggard

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On the LM, some signals in open countryside (usually distants, obviously) had striped black and white posts, though I don't know whether this was to make them more visible or had some subtle meaning.
 

John Webb

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On the LM, some signals in open countryside (usually distants, obviously) had striped black and white posts, though I don't know whether this was to make them more visible or had some subtle meaning.
The 'striping' of distant signal posts was introduced by A F Bound, the LMS's first (Chief) Signal and Telegraph Engineer as he considered that such 'Isolated Distants' were important markers. It was also Bound who introduced the LMS policy of converting 'Isolated Distants' from semaphore to colour light working to make them obvious in poor weather and to thus eliminate the need (and expense) of fogmen.
Bound's successor, W Wood, stopped painting stripes on isolated distant posts around 1946 on the grounds of its expense.
(Information from "A Pictorial Record of L.M.S. Signals" by L G Warburton (1972, OPC and 2010, Noodle Books).
 

Merle Haggard

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The 'striping' of distant signal posts was introduced by A F Bound, the LMS's first (Chief) Signal and Telegraph Engineer as he considered that such 'Isolated Distants' were important markers. It was also Bound who introduced the LMS policy of converting 'Isolated Distants' from semaphore to colour light working to make them obvious in poor weather and to thus eliminate the need (and expense) of fogmen.
Bound's successor, W Wood, stopped painting stripes on isolated distant posts around 1946 on the grounds of its expense.
(Information from "A Pictorial Record of L.M.S. Signals" by L G Warburton (1972, OPC and 2010, Noodle Books).
Thanks for that, just shows how infrequently they painted signal posts as they were still about in the 60s! To be fair, though, the paint still seemed bright.

I also remember those colour lights; there was one at least a mile from where I lived as a child, and because of curvature of the line, there was a point on a nearby footpath exactly in line with it. Despite the distance, I thought I could distinguish its aspects.
 

WesternLancer

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Luckily I kept a number of my Father's old pocket books from his Road Learning days (Steam and Diesel). Handy guides were not generally provided, and Drivers often made their own, as illustrated. Signal Boxes were more frequent, and little pools of light in the darkness. Listening out for overbridges, tunnels, or the sound of running over an underbridge with a steel deck which would make a different noise aided knowing the location in the dark. Bridges and Tunnels are marked, the Signal Boxes are the green squares with the notation L or R on the left to say which side of the track they were, in this case the Down direction. On the far left are the Line speeds for each location. There are marks by some of the signals to show if they were positioned to the right hand side of the track ( RHS ), along with H= Home signal S = Starter OH = Outer Home AS = Advanced Starter. These form of Route Learning notes came in handy until the piece of line was almost imprinted into the brain, when 'knowing the road' meant exactly that.

View attachment 86641
Superb to see that - thanks for sharing. A wonderful item, and open at a page I've only had the pleasure of walking/cycling along I beleive. Do you know what year your dad would have produced that?
 

181

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Listening out for overbridges, tunnels, or the sound of running over an underbridge with a steel deck which would make a different noise aided knowing the location in the dark.

For a significant part of the 1980s I commuted to and from school over a few miles of the South Western main line, and after a few years I found I could tell quite well where I was in the dark just by listening; my father, commuting into Waterloo over a longer period, found the same. Cutting retaining walls, junctions/crossovers, and transitions between welded and jointed rail all helped; presumably curves would have done too, although there were no sharp ones on my route.

I certainly don't want to minimise the skill of drivers, who had much more route to learn, had to actually drive the train as well as knowing where they were, and had to get it right to a safety-critical level (of course they still do, in somewhat different conditions), but it sounds admirably difficult rather than amazingly impossible.

My two experiences of travelling on a steam locomotive footplate in the dark (in Poland in the 1990s, where the locomotives had powerful electric headlights) made me realise how looking at a bright fire destroys your night vision. Presumably the fireman wasn't much help for spotting signals at night, and the driver had to take care not to look at the fire. I did wonder whether loss of night vision might have been involved in some of those mystery accidents like Salisbury or Grantham.

Presumably a fast-asleep signalman was normally fail-safe, and trains would just stop until he was woken, but it was a half-asleep one that could be dangerous.

Do we have any preserved-railway drivers here who can comment on driving in the dark? Speeds there will be low, and there are only a few miles of route to learn, but presumably opportunities to practice night-time driving are limited.
 

chorleyjeff

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How did steam loco drivers manage to correctly spot semaphore signals in the dark in an area of open countryside, especially on a freezing cold snowy night?
In this era of individual signal boxes, were there any incidents of a night shift signalman falling asleep in his presumably warm and toasty signal box.
If a driver held at a Danger signal for several minutes walked over to the signal box and discovered the signalman asleep what might the driver do aside from waking him up.
My dad's friend who was a driver at Preston in steam days reckoned he knew exactly where he was between Preston and Barrow from the noise reflected back from trackside, the track and the engine. He also knew exactly where all signals and points were. The result, I guess, of many years firing and driving along he same track.
 

John Webb

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Thanks for that, just shows how infrequently they painted signal posts as they were still about in the 60s! To be fair, though, the paint still seemed bright.

I also remember those colour lights; there was one at least a mile from where I lived as a child, and because of curvature of the line, there was a point on a nearby footpath exactly in line with it. Despite the distance, I thought I could distinguish its aspects.
It's quite likely that Wood's decision to not paint stripes never got to everyone before Nationalisation in 1948, or that BR decided to continue marking isolated distant posts with stripes.

At St Albans South we have in our files the 'Sighting form' from 1938 relating to the conversion of our mechanical distants to colour light signals.
 

6Gman

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Absolutely they did - and to keep any eye on the train behind them as well to make sure it was intact. I don't think there is much appreciation now of just what a challenging job driving a steam locomotive was. Not only were you remembering the road, observing signals, keeping an eye out for hazards and operating the regulator, cutoff and brake, but also taking responsibility for looking after what was a temperamental monster of a machine so that the boiler water level remained within safe limits, steam was used efficiently and there was sufficient to get up banks. And on top of that keeping to time.
And without speedometers in many cases.

(I should know, but when were speedometers generally fitted to locos?)

Luckily I kept a number of my Father's old pocket books from his Road Learning days (Steam and Diesel). Handy guides were not generally provided, and Drivers often made their own, as illustrated. Signal Boxes were more frequent, and little pools of light in the darkness. Listening out for overbridges, tunnels, or the sound of running over an underbridge with a steel deck which would make a different noise aided knowing the location in the dark. Bridges and Tunnels are marked, the Signal Boxes are the green squares with the notation L or R on the left to say which side of the track they were, in this case the Down direction. On the far left are the Line speeds for each location. There are marks by some of the signals to show if they were positioned to the right hand side of the track ( RHS ), along with H= Home signal S = Starter OH = Outer Home AS = Advanced Starter. These form of Route Learning notes came in handy until the piece of line was almost imprinted into the brain, when 'knowing the road' meant exactly that.

View attachment 86641
My dad did that too! Though not as artistically as yours.

Even more striking was how the TPO exchange staff, back in the mail vehicles with no forward view, knew just where they were, at night, to extend the exchange apparatus, which in the wrong place would be foul of bridge piers etc.
The famous film Night Mail shows staff counting down. "Second bridge, then 20 rail beats and . . . out!" sort of thing.
 
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Fog, falling snow and freezing conditions change the sound of familiar places. My uncle used to say fog and heavy snow changed everything and many places were suddenly unfamiliar. He liked to drive with a window open until he was on HSTs. He always wound down the window in his car at junctions and for manoeuvres too.
 

6026KingJohn

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Another aid to sighting. If the signal was next to a bridge then there would be a large white square painted on the brickwork behind the signal to make it stand out. They must have used good paint as these marks can still be seen in many places today, even where the signals themselves have disappeared in re-signalling schemes, line closures, etc.
 

Gloster

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Another aid to sighting. If the signal was next to a bridge then there would be a large white square painted on the brickwork behind the signal to make it stand out. They must have used good paint as these marks can still be seen in many places today, even where the signals themselves have disappeared in re-signalling schemes, line closures, etc.
There were also locations where the signal still needed something to stand out against, but was remote from a bridge, tunnel portal, etc. In those cases a white board was fitted to the post behind the arm.
 

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