The National Railway Museum is famous for its collection of locomotives and carriages, but perhaps not so famous for its collection of signalling equipment. Not surprising, really: railway signalling is a complex subject that mystifies most rail enthusiasts, let alone ordinary visitors.
As the new Associate Curator of Railways at the NRM, and a former railway signaller, I was lucky to spend last weekend using the collection to bring railway signalling to life.
The object in question was the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Signalling School layout (L&YSSL). The L&YSSL might look like an Edwardian train set perched on a dining table, but it’s actually a carefully designed railway simulator that was used to train railway signallers for over eighty years. Thanks to the work of a group of dedicated volunteers, it’s still a working demonstration tool.
It is an intense experience for the five signallers – but for me, as a rooky recruit, it was just a confusion of bell signals, lever pulling and passing trains. Luckily – for the visitors and me – the train sequence is explained, nice and slowly, by Phil. Phil is a signalling professional, and well versed in turning complex signalling rules into manageable sound bites.
The fun begins when we run a hectic half hour schedule of trains. Expresses, locals, freight, empty stock and light engines, plus some shunting and derailments thrown in for good measure. It’s fast-paced action and the visitors love it. As the action unfolds, Phil acts as narrator, explaining the choreographed dance of trains and signals, as well as answering a stream of questions.
After four hours operation, the session is over, the last visitors drift away and the L&YSSL goes back to sleep. Its been a rewarding experience for both operators and visitors, who have enjoyed a glimpse into the complex word of railway signalling.