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Severn Bridge Junction

Severn Bridge Junction Signal Box

Severn Bridge Junction Signal Box

Shropshire Star article by Ben Bentley 11/04/2012

With their laptops and mobile phones, passengers waving to us from the train can have no idea that their arrival in Shropshire comes courtesy of technology straight out of The Railway Children.

Perched high above the track on the top floor of the Severn Bridge Junction signal box at the southern approach to Shrewsbury railway station, operator Phil Lucas twice taps the bell of an antiquated-looking brass instrument and pulls one of 180 painted wooden levers.

“It’s like Morse Code but it’s not,” he says pulling another hefty long lever that operates the signals and points. “It is like a language of its own.”

A language which goes back more than a century, in fact.

Severn Bridge Junction signal box has been named the largest remaining manual lever-operated junction in the world after the previous largest, Spencer Street in Melbourne, Australia, was replaced with by a computerised system.

The three-storey signal box, built in 1903 and opened a year later, houses 180 levers controlling track signals and points – 90 of which are still in use.   Its design follows that of an enlarged standard London North Western Railway (LNWR) design of 1876 and today it is operated around the clock, usually by two signallers at any one time, who shepherd an average of 300 train movements a day.

The box was built by the LNWR, one of the two major companies – the other was the Great Western Railway (GWR) – which ran Shrewsbury station and engine sheds.

The familiar, and now listed, structure is at the centre of the triangular junction and controls the southern end of Shrewsbury railway station, Severn Bridge Junction and English Bridge Junction.

Up close, you can see the pulley wires and rodding from the signals moving and clicking as they feed into the ground floor of the box. Clambering up the narrow, steep wooden steps, the second floor operations gives an idea of the complexity of the mechanisms which make the junction work so effectively. Imagine you are a mouse that had just found its way inside a telephone exchange box and you get the picture.

But up on the top floor, where operators Phil Lucas and his colleague Dean Baker pull levers and relay information from surrounding junction boxes, is where the action is.

Says Phil: “I love the variety of the trains, and it’s busy up here – you are more involved because it is manual and it’s still a physical job. Some of the levers are pretty hefty and you know you’ve done a day’swork sometimes.”

You can tell that the signalmen love their job. The reading material on top of the cupboard is a teetering pile of Railway Illustrated magazines.

Fellow operator Dean Baker, or ‘Keen Dean’ as he’s known up here, can trace family who worked on the railways back to his great grandfather.

“It all stems from childhood because I used to live next to the railway in Craven Arms, seeing all the trains go by, and I supposed I’m still doing that – I’m still watching the trains go by. It’s a hobby as well as ajob. It’s a childhood dream that I am doing this.”

Dean works a total of 16 signal boxes in Shropshire and says: “They have all got their own quirks.”  The box is a train spotters’ paradise – and there is even a spotters’ gallery on the wall of the box.

Up until four years ago, a Saturday afternoon up here had added interest. The signalmen say you could see half the old Gay Meadow stadium, meaning they got glimpses of 50 per cent of the action when Shrewsbury Town FC were at home.

“We didn’t see much – mainly losing goals in the away end!” says Phil Lucas.

With floor to ceiling windows, the 360-degree view is unique. Apart from the old soccer ground, on one side is the Abbey, on the other is the prison while the spire of St Mary’s Church points proudly into’ the clear blue sky.

There are nods to the modern world up here, however. A track. layout diagram flashes to show the location of  nearby trains and the whole row of wooden levers, painted red, black and blue to indicate their function for signals, points or not in use respectively, is linked to a computer system.

As modern computerised ‘colour light’ signalling is progressively introduced across the UK network, increasing numbers of train enthusiasts are making a beeline to look at the Shropshire signal box.

Traditional signalling has already been replaced by colour lights on the Shrewsbury-Wolverhampton and the Cambrian lines, and work is expected to start soon on the Shrewsbury to Crewe line, which will involve the closure of a number of historic leveroperated signal boxes.

But the Severn Bridge Junction box is expected to stay in use until at least 2030, even though rail officials say  modernisations are continuing to meet the demands of 21st century rail travel.

So why is it that, while other parts of the railway network are, or have already been, modernised, Severn Bridge junction box remains manually operated?

“It is a complex junction and it does work,” says Network rail operations manager Ian Rowson, simply pointing out that not only is it efficient but has a record of unparalleled safety.

It’s that old argument – if it ain’t broke …

“We have got to be proud that Shropshire has got this signal box – it is unique,” adds Ian.

And now, of course, it has become part of world railway heritage.

As operator Phil Lucas says: “This is where we work, but it is part of history and it’s nice to think that you,are part of it.”