Rail Engineer normally contains articles that feature new technology and the commissioning of the latest projects and provides an opportunity for suppliers to promote the development of innovative engineering products. Just occasionally, however, articles will appear that feature the heritage railway sector, that tell of the challenges to obtain and maintain historic equipment with very limited funds.
The Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE) set up a Minor Railways Section some while ago, to feature and promote the work of these railways. While the engineering challenges are just as great as on ‘big’ railways, they have to come up with solutions that demand creative thinking and bargain basement procurement, often obtaining results that are quite remarkable.
To the uninitiated, GWR = Great Western Railway. However, in this instance, it stands for the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, which just happens to be in the old GWR territory, so it’s a lucky acronym. In fact, the official name is the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway, so, partly to avoid confusion with the modern-day GWR franchise, the older heritage railway is now often termed the GWSR.
The origin of the line was a Great Western route from Birmingham to Cheltenham, intended to avoid paying running rights to the Midland Railway for use of their line between these two cities. Some of the route is still open – from Birmingham to Stratford upon Avon – forming part of Birmingham’s suburban network. The rest of the line closed in 1976, although the local stations had closed in 1960, none of the villages serving any significant population. A serious derailment, and its associated track damage, at Winchcombe was judged too expensive to repair.
By 1978, all the track had been lifted except for the short section from Honeybourne to Long Marston, serving an MoD storage site. Most buildings survived but became increasingly decrepit. Honeybourne is where the line crossed the main Oxford to Worcester route, still open today and increasingly busy.
Enthusiasts and railway preservationists in the area believed that the route could become a major tourist attraction and, with a Light Railway Order granted, tracklaying commenced at Toddington in 1983, the first steam services running the following year. By 1986, Winchcombe had been reached, in 2003 the line had extended to Cheltenham Racecourse and in 2018, the extension northwards to Broadway was opened.
Landslips at, firstly, Gotherington, and then at Winchcombe, have been major setbacks, but such is the determination of the company that huge funds were raised for these to be repaired in a manner that hopefully will prevent any future problems.
Signalling the Line
Whilst the glamour of a heritage railway perhaps goes to the locomotives, coaches and stations, the line has to be operated safely and reliably, and for this the signalling is crucial. Initially, control was by train staff and ticket for the short section from Toddington to Winchcombe but, as the line extended and more trains were operating, proper signalling arrangements were required.
The GWSR has five signalboxes, all of the traditional type but very different as to how they have been acquired and built. They are: Toddington, Winchcombe, Gotherington, Cheltenham Racecourse and Broadway. Linking all the locations is a buried cable of 0.9 mm conductors, jelly filled and armoured. 20 pair is the norm but 10 pair is installed between Far Stanley (part-way between Winchcombe and Gotherington) and Gotherington. The cable suffices for both signalling and telecommunication requirements.
Each box is considered in turn.
This was the only box to survive the demolition process, although without its original lever frame which had been sold to another railway prior to the GWSR acquiring the site. The box never had running water in BR days and even electricity was a late addition.
After repairing the box structure, a 35-lever frame from Earlswood Lakes on the North Warwickshire line was acquired after that route was re-signalled. The frame dates from 1906 and has a three-bar horizontal-tappet locking arrangement.
A Tyers token machine controls the single line section to Winchcombe and, for the present, a train staff is issued when a service runs to the newly opened Broadway section. Release of the Broadway train staff allows a single pull on the section signal to prevent any unauthorised movement towards Broadway.
All signals are typical GW lower quadrant and enable signalled movements into either platform and to the sidings in the yard, where the main locomotive depot is sited. Points and facing point locks are operated by conventional rodding except for those at the far end of the loop towards Broadway. These are worked by HW point machines as the ‘pull distance’ is too great for manual operation.
The original signalbox was demolished, so a redundant structure from Hall Green on the North Warwickshire line was acquired when that route was modernised. It is built on the foundations of the original box with the brickwork being carried out by GWSR volunteers.
The 35-lever frame came from Honeybourne West Loop and is a five-bar vertical-tappet design originally manufactured in 1960. As such it is relatively new! The SB diagram is illuminated to show track circuit occupations.
The Tyers token instruments enable both short and long section operation. Going south, one token machine is for the section to Gotherington (the next box) but this is not always open. The other machine works the section to Cheltenham Race Course and is the one mostly in use. The two sections have different coloured tokens, red for Winchcombe to Gotherington, green for Winchcombe to Cheltenham. Another token machine with blue tokens covers the section Winchcombe to Toddington.
Although Winchcombe is, in many ways, the core of the signalling operation, the box can switch out by means of the Toddington – Cheltenham staff mounted in an Annett’s Lock on the block shelf. When the line is closed, the staff is brought to Toddington. It is normally taken back to Winchcombe by road in order to open up the line for token operation. It is also possible to open Winchcombe as a ground frame by a train movement from Toddington, providing it has the Toddington Cheltenham staff in its possession.
Signals are traditional lower quadrant, but one unusual feature is the provision of two mechanical banner repeaters. The sighting for the southbound starter signals towards Greet tunnel is poor when leaving the platform. As the signals are pulled off, a signal wire taken from the opposite side of the main signal balance weight arm, operates the banner. This operates identically to a normal signal and contains its own balance weight, down rod and pivot casting. It thus proves to the driver as near as is practical that the main signal arm is off.
The next station is lightly used and cannot accommodate full length trains in its short platforms. Gotherington did, at one time, have a passing loop in the platform area, but this was removed long ago. The need for a passing loop only becomes necessary when a three-train service is in operation or when special events are being held. It was impractical to re-instate the loop in the platform area, so a new loop was provided just to the south of the station. Since the line had always been double track prior to closure, space was available for this.
The addition of this loop necessitated the building of a new box, constructed of Bradstone blocks and a steel frame, similar to the one at Cheltenham (see below). The frame came from Claydon Crossing on the line from Banbury to Leamington Spa. It was originally stud locked but has been modified to a three-bar vertical-tappet layout. Signals are lower quadrant and the box is normally closed with signals being cleared in both directions for operation through the down side of the loop.
Cheltenham Race Course SB
When the line was extended in 2003, the Race course station became the south terminus, with engine run-round and the stabling of trains having to be provided. A new signalbox was constructed at the north end in stone-coloured Bradstone blocks with a steel frame and an internal staircase.
The racecourse did have a station before line closure, but it was only open on race days. Nothing except the wooden ticket office at road level remained after the line demolition, so everything here is brand new. There are two platforms, although these are not connected by a footbridge. The line extends southbound into a shunt neck, there splitting into two sidings that terminate at the southern end of Hunting Butts tunnel.
The box was built in 2001 with the 20-lever frame coming from Whiteball Sidings between Taunton and Wellington, near to the spot where City of Truro made its 100mph dash in 1904. It is again a vertical-tappet three-bar arrangement. Track circuits are illuminated on the box diagram.
Two token machines are provided, covering short or long section working to Gotherington and Winchcombe respectively. On busy days, two race specials can be accommodated at Cheltenham. The first to arrive gives up its token and proceeds from the platform to the headshunt. A second train can then be accepted and, after arrival, the locomotive is detached and proceeds to the rear of the first train. With the first train locomotive uncoupled, the second locomotive takes the first train carriages back through the loop as empty stock and northwards to a stabling point, usually at Toddington. The first locomotive then rounds run the second train for a return service.
Cheltenham box can work as a ground frame during light traffic periods. If long staff working is in operation, the box will be closed, with a signalman travelling on the train and inserting the staff into the Annett’s key lock on the block shelf that permits ground frame operation for locomotive run-round purposes.
The much-heralded opening to Broadway in March 2018 was achieved with only one platform being available, the footbridge still to be completed and without any of the signalling being operational. Hence the use of ‘One Train Working’ as a temporary measure.
There was virtually nothing left of the station and the old signalbox had been demolished, so a brand new box has been built in traditional GW style . It is sited on the still-to-be-completed northbound platform and is equipped with a 46-lever frame from Aller Junction near Newton Abbott, made redundant when Exeter Power Box was commissioned in the 1980s. It had originally been acquired by the Gorse Blossom miniature railway, which never got around to using it. The locking is a three-bar vertical-tappet arrangement and is already configured for station operation and any future extension onwards to Honeybourne.
Most lower quadrant signals are in place, the only electrically operated signal will be the northbound distant, and the line will be fully track circuited from Toddington. Commissioning of the new box is expected in March 2020.
What the GWSR has achieved in its 35-year existence is remarkable. The recent extension to Broadway has opened up a new market, as the town is itself a tourist attraction. The infrastructure, stations, rolling stock and signalling are all things the railway can be proud of.
The one missing element is a main line connection. Whilst much of the track bed at the southern end through Cheltenham is accessible, parts have been built on so, extending here is potentially very difficult. For all its prestige, Cheltenham experiences unsocial behaviour, which could lead to vandalism problems in any future town centre section.
At the northern end, the route to Honeybourne would be relatively easy to reinstate, which would allow a connection to the Cotswold line. North from there to Stratford, beyond Long Marston, is much more difficult as encroachment of the track bed has happened in several places.
Nothing is impossible these days, as the Borders Railway and the Welsh Highland have demonstrated, but, whatever transpires, the signalling fraternity will be there to play its part.
Thanks to Neil Carr, operations manager, and Malcolm Walker from the GWSR signalling department for explaining the signalling and operation of the line.