This dispatch baton, recently donated to the museum, may be a familiar sight to many of you. It is usually wielded by a member of platform staff at larger stations to signal that a train is ready to leave
If you travel a lot by rail then this might be the last object you see as you dive onto an imminently departing train. Alternatively, it might be the sign that heralds the sinking realisation that you have just missed your crucial train connection. It really is one of the most critical aspects of making sure trains set off on time, avoiding accidents to passengers and staff in the process.
This may seem like a mundane object compared to some of the treasures in the National Collection, but tools of the trade like this are key to making sure that busy passenger services tick over efficiently.
Here’s my understanding how these batons are used. The baton is raised by the responsible member of staff to indicate to the Train Manager that platform duties are complete, and that the train doors can be closed. The Train Manager or Conductor closes the train doors, if they are automatic. On longer slam-door trains it is sometimes necessary to have an extra member of staff with a baton to relay a signal to their platform colleague if the Train Manager is not able to see the entire train because of a curving platform. The showing of the baton is usually accompanied by a blast of a whistle.
I’m sure that there are slight variations on how this works, which readers are welcome to alert us to. Hopefully this helps to explain why many trains close their doors up to a minute before departure.
With the most recent driver-only trains, it is common for platform staff to hold a dispatch baton up to one of the cameras fitted to the side of the train, which is then viewed by the driver on a monitor in the cab.
The example we have collected bears the iconic British Rail ‘double arrow’ logo, usefully dating it to 1997 at latest. I’ve included some images (above and below) of railway workers from the 1920s and 1964 giving trains the ‘Right away!’, using hand signals and flags. Whatever the method used, they highlight the importance of the human element in ensuring the safety of rail passengers and the trains running on time.
Which reminds me, I really must run faster to catch my train…