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Haltwhistle - Wetheral Signal Box Visits - Part 1
Friday 14th February 2020

Report by Nigel Lyons with additional material by Nick Jones


Valentine's Day dawned bright and early for me a few miles south of Haltwhistle with strong cold winds preceding the arrival of Storm Dennis whipping around our rented cottage on a Beef Farm in the snow-covered hills. I thought it would be an idea to make a long weekend of it with the girlfriend as it's nearly a 300 miles journey north from Aylesbury, and I wouldn't have made it back in time for an evening out! [Or risk ending the visits with one to the dog house.] Parking in Haltwhistle station car park, 11 brave windswept souls met at 10.30 anticipating visiting five signal boxes on the Newcastle to Carlisle line, working west. The twelfth party member, on a flying visit, was still en route; making his way by train to Haltwhistle after landing from Ireland that morning at Glasgow Airport.

Mobile Operations Manager, Graham Lamb, due to lead the trip was in a meeting, so his deputy John Race stepped in until Graham was free. Nick Jones, our organiser, explained the day's activities and, as there were four car drivers, including myself, places were allocated to cars for the convoy later on.

Haltwhistle: The station house, footbridge, the grand circa 1901 former North Eastern Railway (NER) restored signal box and water crane are all Grade II listed at this delightful station, as is the nearby viaduct over the River South Tyne (the 'Alston Arches' on the Alston branch). Building the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway and the station here required a diversion of the River and the adjacent turnpike road.

However, the first box to be visited was not listed and only dates from 2009; a portable building west of P1, by the Up line (to Newcastle). It is next to the surviving Goods Shed and is the second box on this site. After the NER box east of the station on the Down side (to Carlisle) closed and before this one opened, another temporary box was used. The current box has an IFS (Individual Function Switch) Panel dating from 1993 (from the previous box). Unlike many IFS panels, the signal control switches are located directly on the mimic diagram, giving a similar appearance to an eNtrance-eXit panel.

Haltwhistle works Absolute Block to Haydon Bridge eastwards, and west to Low Row, with the block instruments and bells contained in the panel itself. The box is responsible for five level crossings of different types and all running signals are two aspect colour lights. Melkridge Siding Loop (35m 10ch to 35m 62ch) east of Haltwhistle, currently clamped OOU, is controlled from here. It originally served a Rapid Loading Bunker for Plenmeller Opencast Site (1½ miles away, the coal arrived by conveyor). The site closed in 2000, but the siding remains. In the past there were thoughts of converting it to a fully signalled Down Goods Loop but, with the significant reduction in coal traffic, this now seems unlikely.

There is a trailing crossover west of the station, allowing access to a still-active P'Way siding in the old goods yard, behind the box. A former second siding, still on Google Maps and Oct 2016 TRACKmaps, had presumably been removed quite recently (and certainly by 5 Feb 2019). This crossover also allows trains which terminate at Haltwhistle (from either direction) to shunt ECS to the other platform to turnback, with a Limit of Shunt (effectively a permanently red signal) provided on the Down Line for such moves. A separate portable building houses the Relay Interlocking for the panel.

Haltwhistle (NER): Our members then returned to the station, and crossed the line via the station footbridge, as the NER Box is accessed from a public footpath leading off the east end of P2, the Carlisle platform, sandwiched between the railway and the River South Tyne. At this point the Alston branch used to diverge south from the former P3 at Haltwhistle Jn (CA 3 May 1976 but part has been reinstated as the 2ft gauge South Tynedale Railway between Alston and Slaggyford).

The south side of Haltwhistle station, the former loop platform (P3); yard, including the turntable pit; the viaduct carrying the Alston branch over the River South Tyne and the trackbed up to the A69 bypass, are now owned by the South Tynedale Railway. Although situated at the foot of the Newcastle end platform ramp, there is no access to the NER signal box that way. The lofty building towers over the footbridge for sighting purposes. Built in the early 20th Century (sources differ as to the exact date, Peter Kay has 1901), the Grade II listed box closed in 1993. Until recently a NR office but is now OOU.

Tyne Valley Community Rail Partnership holds occasional public open days. Only the lever frame remains, and has been restored using some imaginative but fictitious colour schemes, and various lever plates in random order… 51, 4, 62 next to each other as an example! The original frame was replaced by this McKenzie & Holland one in 1927 with 85 levers, but was reduced to 61 when the Alston branch closed. The diagram was also something of a mystery, apparently made up of some original sections with what appeared to be hand-sketched replica sections. The brick built base for housing the locking equipment is now empty, and is much narrower than the wooden Box above.


Our readers will know that signal boxes come in all sorts of sizes and shapes - this 'temporary' building (centre) is Haltwhistle; the railway is behind with the platform for Carlisle in the distance. The remains of the Goods Shed is to the left.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




It's a wind up … not some sort of mediaeval torture but tensioning equipment in the ex-NER signal box for long signal wires so that they could be adjusted for temperature changes.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




The one and only Engineer's Siding (the other was far left) looking towards Newcastle - the ex-NER Signal Box is background far right.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




Haltwhistle NX panel, on which Carlisle is to the right and Newcastle left; the trailing crossover and Engineer's Siding can be seen and former open cast coal disposal point (left end). Through the leftmost window can be seen the Carlisle platform at Haltwhistle.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




Haltwhistle NX panel, on which Carlisle is to the right and Newcastle left; the trailing crossover and Engineer's Siding can be seen and former open cast coal disposal point (left end).
[© Nick Jones 2020]




A 'token' selection of our members 'staff' our Society's 14 Feb 2020 signal box visits in Haltwhistle NER box. Organiser and party leader, Nick Jones, is 'in the frame', far right. It was less than six weeks later that social distancing was invented.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




The ex-NER Haltwhistle Signal Box diagram and restored lever frame.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




The ex-NER Haltwhistle Signal Box diagram and restored lever frame.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




From the box, a Newcastle to Carlisle train approaches. The Alston branch ran on a third track to the right, curving sharp right in the distance.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




Looking towards Newcastle from the footbridge, the NER box is right. Again the Alston branch ran along the right side on its own track.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




You've Been Framed… a view we have not had in BLN before; looking down on the frame detail in the NER box.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




View towards Carlisle from inside the box, the platform for Alston was left (no ramp then).
[© Nick Jones 2020]




A distant view towards Carlisle; the current box, Engineer's Sidings & crossover are ahead.
[© Nick Jones 2020]



Part 2: (By our Level Crossing aficionado John Cowburn also Nick Garnham & Nick Jones.)

Assembling in Haltwhistle station car park our group continued celebrating Valentine's Day. A convoy of four cars followed the MOM to visit two bonus boxes towards Carlisle, the Level Crossing Gate Boxes at Denton Village, and Lane Head.

The Newcastle & Carlisle Railway Tyne Valley line was an early rail route, opening from Carlisle to Greenhead in 1836 according to the 23 Jul 1836 Carlisle Journal; probably as a consequence, this section has a significant number of level crossings. Most of these have been modernised over the past 40 years, with all but two now having either locally controlled full barriers or automatic half barriers.

For reasons that are not clear, just two of the crossings - Denton Village and Lane Head - have not been modernised and in 2020 are still protected by hand-worked gates opened and closed by crossing keepers operating from adjacent gate boxes. Both are on very minor roads; one is little more than a cart track but its crossing is at a bend on the railway, while the other is on a straight section of line but with houses close by. The two crossings are east of the 2009 commissioned signal box at Low Row.

This modern box directly controls colour light signals in each direction from a lengthy eNtrance-eXit (NX) panel. Both crossings are now within the directly controlled area or 'station limits', for want of a better expression, of Low Row, which still works Absolute Block to Brampton Fell in the west and Haltwhistle in the east. Prior to the signaling modernisation here, it is understood that both crossings were located in the Absolute Block section outwith the 'station limits', and each had a ground frame with semaphore signals to protect it. Our visits provided an opportunity to study the crossings.

Denton Village: (43m 65ch from Newcastle) This manually worked gate crossing is on a short cul-de-sac which serves a hamlet of maybe six houses, although the village church is also on the 'wrong' side of the crossing. It is supervised by the crossing keeper who is based in a modern portable building on the northern Up side of the line (to Newcastle). Being a sheep farming area, there isn't a harvest as such to consider, though hay making time can generate extra farm traffic. The online ABC Railway Guide (infrastructure) has much information about every NR crossing including location, category, daily number of trains, usage, risk level and for most photographs/maps. It suggests daily usage of this crossing is only eight pedestrians or cyclists per day, with no motor vehicles - the last seems unlikely given that it provides the only vehicular access to the houses and farms on the north side of the line.

The crossing has two single lane width gates; both are wooden but they are different. The south side one is an unpainted regular farm/field gate with replacement timber gateposts of relatively recent origin. In contrast the north side gate is a more normal white painted crossing type gate of a typically North Eastern pattern, with unidirectional diagonal bracing, that is hung from much older low height concrete gateposts. Both gates carry central road facing red targets and 'Trafilamp' style red lights on top. Very unusually the two gates open in different directions; the traditional north side (village side) gate opens out, away from the railway, while the south side field type gate opens inwards to the line.

The latter gate is set well back from the railway so that even when it is open to the road it does not foul the line. There are no cattle guards on either side of the crossing, despite the gates not even remotely 'fencing' the carriageway when open to the road. They are usually closed to the road unless a vehicle wishes to cross. A push button on the north side and plunger on Down side are for road users to attract the crossing keeper's attention but an actual call bell was not seen or heard by our group.

Both gateposts have modern key-locks of the 'Fortress Interlocking' (trapped key type), which were also found on the Wherry Lines in Norfolk. These are operated using the keys held by the instrument in the keeper's cabin. Unlike the Wherry Lines, the keys for each lock here are identical so either key can be used for either gate. The crossing is protected by Low Row signal '7413' in the Down (to Carlisle) direction and '7416' in the Up direction; each is a considerable distance from the crossing.

Traditional standard Absolute Block 'Train in Section/Train Approaching Section' indicators are fixed to an inside wall of the cabin. A TRUST (Train Running System on TOPS - British Rail's Total Operations Processing System) screen is on the crossing keeper's desk and a modern key lock instrument is provided with 'Train Approaching' lights. It is suspected, but unconfirmed, that the last are lit when the Absolute Block indicators show either 'Train Approaching Section' or 'Train in Section'; it is possible also that they are operated independently by treadles or track circuits. The key lock instrument also has an emergency replacement switch which turns signals LR7413 and LR7416 to red if it is operated.

The keeper monitors rail traffic on the TRUST screen and is able to take the keys out (if there are no trains approaching) to open the gates to road traffic at will. Before the Low Row signaller can clear signals for a train, they must check that the 'F' (Free) indication is showing above the Denton Village 'Key Lock Release' switch on the panel and turn the switch from 'R' to 'N' (presumably 'Released' and 'Normal' respectively) to lock the instrument at Denton Village and prevent the keys being removed.

If the keys are out of Denton Village instrument, the 'F' indication is extinguished on the Low Row panel. In this situation the Low Row signaller would not be able to revert the control to 'N'. (The switch itself could presumably physically be moved from 'R' to 'N' but the indication would remain at 'R'). This then means that the signaller would be unable to clear the signals for a train in either direction.

Denton Village, along with the other locations on the line, is staffed 24 hours Monday to Friday and normally closes Saturday and Sunday nights. When it is to close, following the late shift on Saturday or Sunday, there is a procedure to go through: the gates are left opened to road traffic, and padlocked open to wooden posts. The crossing keeper then confirms to Low Row that the gates are open to road traffic, and the gate box can then close; this cannot happen if the keys are still in the instrument. With the gates padlocked open to the road, the keys are, of course, trapped in the key locks on the gate posts and can't be removed until the gates are closed again to road traffic which releases them.

When a train is approaching the crossing, the route is approach-locked and again the 'F' light on Low Row panel will extinguish so the signaller cannot release the keys by turning the switch back to 'R'.

After the train has passed over the crossing, the 'F' light illuminates again and the Low Row signaller will normally turn the switch back to 'R' immediately (they do not wait for a request from Denton Village). This is implemented with the normal signalling track circuits; there are no 'Moreton-on-Lugg' style treadles at the crossing. The crossing also has wicket gates on both sides which are not controlled in any way. Pedestrians may use these and cross at any time (following the usual 'Stop, Look, Listen' procedure) without involving the crossing keeper and a section of the road bed on the Carlisle side of the road is segregated off for pedestrians by means of a painted white line.


Denton Village manually worked crossing gate (43m 65ch from Newcastle on the Carlisle line) and its gate box to the left.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




One of the level crossing gates locked without the key inserted.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




As can be seen the keys are actually very small and identical, hopefully the keeper won't drop one outside on a dark night!
[© Nick Jones 2020]




The Ups and Downs of working in Denton Village Gate Box: the traditional block indicators.
[© Nick Jones 2020]




The pedestrian walkway - those with good eyesight will spot the furry feline perhaps wondering where the catwalk is?
[© Nick Jones 2020]

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