Inevitably there was so much going on at the recent Acton Depot open day that I couldn’t fit it all in to one post. Last time I covered the “outdoor” activity, so now it’s time to move indoors. A popular feature of the open days is that many activities are laid on, both to bring the exhibits to life and also provide the opportunity for visitors of all ages to interact with the exhibits and people who know a bit about them. Often this can work both ways, as inevitably some visitors are able to add to the understanding of a particular object or its history.
Readers of this blog will know by now that object handling is always a popular activity at the Covent Garden site, so it’s no surprise that it also featured at the open day. Over the course of the Sunday I found various volunteers such as Ash Ketchum and Peter Brown helping out at the object handling stall, Gibson ticket machines racing away.
I have blogged previously on the work of the signals team in restoring old Underground signalling control panels. The value of their painstaking work was brought home to me by the amount of interest in their work at the open day. It would be no exaggeration to say that they were besieged by interested visitors at times through the day, as can be seen in the photos. Somewhere in the scrum is Peter Smith, explaining the finer points of the Elephant and Castle station control panel.
It’s always great to see the sheer variety of people that attend the open days. The cloakroom is always well-used, and I think the number of buggies shows just how many children were present. A demonstration to the contribution of the museum’s volunteers to the open days is the fact that there were some 14 different activities that they were responsible for over the course of the day, not to mention the activity of your humble scribe – although whether I contributed to anyone’s enjoyment might be a moot point!
So, who are these keepers of the dark art of Underground signalling? The first thing to say is that some of the team were not at the Depot when I called by, so this post concentrates on the three that were. Don’t worry though, I’ll be back to catch up with the others before too long.
First up is Mike Crosbie, the team’s designer. Mike did his engineering apprenticeship with Morris Motors in Oxford, and joined London Underground in the early 1970s in response to an advert for signalling engineers. You can see him above checking the wiring diagram for the Elephant and Castle restoration, designed by him from scratch. Having looked at the diagrams I can vouch for the fact that they are very intricate – they give a real feel for the painstaking accuracy required to deliver safe signalling.
Peter Smith (seen with Mike above) is the odd man out, insofar as his career was in television engineering (with the BBC) rather than railways. He has been a volunteer with the museum for some 18 years, and with some modesty describes himself as a “willing pair of hands”. In his time with the museum he has done bus cleaning, enamel sign mounting and restoration work on standard tube train stock.
Bill Collins (above) has signalling in his blood: he has been a volunteer for four or five years now, but started his working life as a fifteen year old office boy in the signalling department at Earls Court, before becoming an apprentice. Subsequently his entire career was in metro signalling (not all with London Underground). Bill became a volunteer because he enjoyed working with signals so much.
What is it that has kept this hard-working team so close? To a man they said it was the camaraderie, coupled with a good sense of humour – essential!
In my time as a volunteer with the museum I’ve noticed that “the signalling team” is always mentioned in hushed tones as a look of awe spreads over the face. Now my personal view of signals has always been “how hard can it be?” It is, after all, some simple short circuits out on the track and a lot of glorified Christmas lights isn’t it? So I thought I ought to catch up with these volunteer keepers of the arcane art: a few hours with the signalling team in their lair at Acton Depot on Thursday 15th November soon put me straight.
The team have just finished a full working restoration of the old (1932) signal panel and control desk (miniature lever frame, to give the proper title) from Marble Arch station, and are now starting on a similar overhaul of the old (1941) panel and desk from Elephant and Castle station. Below you can see the Marble Arch panel in all its glory and below that the current state of “the Elephant” as it’s affectionately known. As you will observe, the latter has most definitely been completely stripped down!
The two photos above amply demonstrate just how much work goes into a restoration; it’s a complete overhaul of all the component parts, and replacement of those that are time-expired. This is very labour intensive work, requiring a high level of skill and knowledge of the design and manufacture of these complicated pieces of electro-mechanical equipment that are now up to eighty years old. Marble Arch took 18 months of hard work from start to finish.
However, this is only half the job. If the full working of a signal box is to be recreated, then the panels need to be fed simulations of the electrical prompts that they would receive from track circuits in real life as trains moved about, points were moved, etc. So, the team has designed, built, tested and connected a whole rack of relay switches (above) and connected it to a bespoke computer programme on a pc, in such a way that between them they mimic all the different types of train movement one might see at Marble Arch station, and feeds the necessary prompts to the signal box. This is no small feat, and results in an impressive exhibit.
At the Museum Depot we have a fantastic team who regularly work together to restore and maintain some of our signalling equipment that we have acquired, such as the York Road and Marble Arch signal frames. They are currently working on restoring Marble Arch back in to working order, and have gone through a long journey of acquiring parts and the right skills and input. Bill Collins from the signalling team has proved an update on their current progress, and how 2012 looks for them:
“We are currently wiring up the two frames (Eastbound & Westbound) that will go into the equipment cabinet that will allow us to control Marble Arch frame. We then need to connect the equipment cabinet via multicore cables to the frame & diagram plus train description and miscellaneous items to the frame.
We have all the items we need and are making good progress towards March 10th (Our next Depot Open Weekend). I’m not yet convinced that we will have all up & working by then but we do have the computer side of things already done and tested. This allows us to test our items but most importantly allows us to ‘produce’ trains, and then via the Signalling frame allow them to run through the station or terminate and reverse west to east via the siding.
There are also all of the train descriptions to manage along with operating the frame. Naturally we will have to test all of the above if we are to have things working by then, but whatever happens, I believe we will be able to demonstrate some ‘life’ happening with Marble Arch by then!”