Bluff your way in signalling: A quick (but 100% authentic) cheat.

As anyone who knows me in the hobby doubtless realises, I like signals and signalling. Full signalling and block working are on the long-term “to do” list for the railway, but with the twin spurs of the approaching 2014 “Longest Day” steamup and the presence of Victor Isle encouraging action, I needed something done right now. Inspiration came from an obscure note at the back of a history book about a minor standard gauge line, the Pilmoor Boroughbridge and Knaresborough Railway in Yorkshire, part of the North Eastern Railway. During the ’30s the LNER S&T department were under pressure to save money, and came up with an interesting scheme for light and minor railways to eliminate the costs of signalmen and lampmen.

The idea was that signalboxes and signals would be removed, and points converted to hand-lever operation with some key-locking. Signals would be replaced with fixed boards painted with dazzlingly conspicuous schemes by day, and with patterned reflectors by night, and unlit. This meant that locomotives would require powerful electric lights.

Approaching a block/staff post, a train would first encounter a “Location Marker Board”, 7’6″ x 1’6″ with black and white diagonal stripes (and a zigzag pattern of white reflectors). This was the equivalent of a distant signal fixed at caution, and warned the driver to start braking as they approached.

The next board encountered was the “Station Limit Board”, positioned outside the first pointwork and replacing the Home signal, this was 1’6″ x 6’3″ and painted with red and white diagonal stripes (and a reflector pattern of a white rectangular border with 3 evenly spaced red circular clusters inside). The meaning of this was the same as a STOP board, effectively “Stop at this board unless/until signalled forward by the station board”.

The station board was the final one encountered, and the only one with a working light or moving parts. It consisted of a 4′ square white board mounted on a framework and arranged to pivot about a vertical axis, and with a 1’6″ square trapdoor in the middle. To permit a train to enter the station, the stationmaster or porter-in-charge would first set the points correctly, then using the key obtained he would unlock the station board, swing it to face the approaching train, and open the trapdoor which revealed a solid green square with a green lens at the centre (lit by night). Seeing the green square or light was the driver’s authority to pass the Station Limit Board and enter the station. There was no equivalent to a starter signal: possession of the staff (once the person in charge had set the points and given it to him) was a driver’s sole authority to depart. Interestingly, the design of the system assumed that all staff/block/crossing posts would be manned, fair enough in a time when freight traffic seemed to last longer than passenger and demanded strong backs for unloading and experienced brains to keep the books. It’s also worth noting that a crossing place could only show a green in one direction at once, so preventing two simultaneous arrivals. It is not widely known that this actually duplicates both rulebook requirements and interlocking standards for signalled crossing places- in the absence of trap points and sidings, only one home signal should (or could) be cleared at once.

Level crossings were slightly different. It was assumed that parliamentary (as opposed to light) railways would have to keep manned crossings in place, so the only possible saving to be had was the elimination of the lampman. Gate distant and stop signals were replaced with 4′ square boards, which pivoted about a horizontal axis to be face-on for “on” and lie flat and invisible for “off”. These were white with a diamond shaped design on the face; Gate Caution Boards had a black and yellow quartered face with the word GATE picked out horizontally in reflectors while Gate Stop Boards had a plain red diamond and the reflectors spelt STOP vertically. In one case the stop boards were not in a separate frame but fixed to the gates themselves, and thus only visible when the gates were closed to rail. More prototype information can be found at here and here.

For modelling purposes, the proper way would have been to cut the boards out of ply, paint them and apply “bling” crafting crystals with adhesive (and we do have the bits to do that, and might yet one day) but right now a quick fix was needed. The various boards were drawn full model size in CAD, copy-pasted till we had the total number required (3 station limit boards, 5 location marker boards, 6 section limit boards, 6 Gate Stop and 7 Gate Caution), printed, laminated, cut out and stuck to kebab sticks and stabbed into the ground. They were only intended for the day, but 6 weeks later are mostly still there. The printer ink will doubtless fade before too long, but it doesn’t matter as they were quick to make and install and just as quick and easy to replace.

Complete set of "Boroughbridge boards" for the line awaiting installation.

Complete set of “Boroughbridge boards” for the line awaiting installation.

Gate Caution board for Baumber Lane, installed at the country end of Hatton.

Gate Caution board for Baumber Lane, installed at the country end of Hatton.

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Pick a card: a shunting game for the garden railway

At the 2013 “Longest day” steamup some of our visitors were taken with the operational possibilities of the line, and wanted to actually, you know, operate the railway. At that stage I had a few pipe-dreams and half sketched out ideas for operating schemes, but needed to come up with something right now, that would be quick to produce, simple and easy to understand but challenging enough to be interesting, and fun. As it was a free-for-all steamup full-on timetable and working to rulebook was out, so I decided to concentrate on shunting operations and let the trains run freely once made up. It seemed to work, and kept the keen one amused for quite some time. Here is the recipe:

Ingredients: An assortment of wagons, some small self-adhesive labels, a pack of cards and some dice.

Preparation: Count the total number of wagons available (home and visitors’) for the shunting game, and count out that number of cards from the pack. Write on the labels, one to correspond to each card eg 7♣ for seven of spades, J♦ for Jack of diamonds. It doesn’t have to be pretty, merely readable. I used black and red pens to help identify the suits. Apply the labels to the wagons (choose easy-peel-off labels if you’re worried about delicate paintwork). Put the wagons out in your various loops and sidings, and leave the corresponding card in a stack at the appropriate station. We had one stack at each terminus, not using the intermediate stations so as not to block the running line for other visiting steamers who weren’t playing the game.

Play: Steam a loco. While pressure is building, roll the dice (how many dice depends on the number of wagons available and the preferred maximum length of train: For example 3 dice will yield and average train length of 10.5 wagons with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 18). Shuffle the pile of cards for that station and draw a number equal to the result of the die roll: eg Roll, 3, 2 and 3 for 8 so draw 8 cards. The challenge then is to find the wagons represented by the cards drawn, and marshal them into a train in the order drawn (representing the fact that pickup goods trains weren’t built up any old how, but assembled into the proper order for maximum convenience shunting, attaching and detaching en route), not forgetting the brake van at the rear. Once the train is assembled, take the cards representing the train with you and head out onto the main line for a run (as long as you like, we’re not being strict here) before arriving at the other terminus. Upon arrival, add your cards to the bottom of the pile already present, and begin again with a fresh die roll for the return journey. Alternatively you could shuffle the cards, but adding them to the bottom of the pile is more realistic because it took time to unload wagons and one freshly arrived is unlikely to be ready to go back straight away (unless it can be unloaded very quickly, like a hopper or a cattle truck).

In practice it worked quite well, with enough work for three or even four engines (two working goods trains, and one shunting at each end while the train engines were refreshed and re-steamed). Whilst we didn’t use the intermediate stations and sidings, they could be added into the game with some simple rules changes (eg 1st wagon dropped at 1st station, either every time or maybe flip a coin and drop a wagon if you get heads), and 1 terminus off the circuit would be sufficient (we just used two because I have two). Have a go, modify to suit yourself, and if you come up with an improvement feel free to share it with us!