Train Control

Leeds Control office in about 1960. Maurice Boddy is sitting furthest from the camera in front of the board.

During the heyday of railway operation through Woodlesford the trains were managed by controllers based in a windowless office at Leeds City station. The routine of moving them along the line was left to signalmen, each looking after the signals and points for a section of track, or block, but the “bigger picture,” involving decisions about unexpected delays to trains because of breakdowns, accidents, staff shortages and locomotive issues, was decided by the controllers.

The system had been created on the Midland Railway in the years before the First World War by Cecil Paget, appointed as the company’s General Superintendent in 1907. By then huge quantities of coal were being sent south to London from Yorkshire and the Midlands in trains of slow moving loose-coupled wagons. These were getting in the way of passenger expresses and freight trains carrying more valuable cargo.

After studying the problem by living alongside the line in a coach at Rotherham for weeks at a time Paget devised an experimental scheme of centralised traffic control which at first applied to South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire. The location of trains were regularly reported from designated signal boxes and passed over dedicated telephone lines to a central office in Derby. Detailed instructions on how many wagons, locomotive power and the order in which trains were to run, were then passed back to a network of 24 local offices, the first of which was close to Rotherham Masborough station.

As Paget’s more scientific system of timetabling grew train mileage was reduced, the footplatemen and guards didn’t need to be paid as much overtime, and costs were brought down.

Train control was especially important in the five mile section between Woodlesford, Methley and Altofts Junction just north of Normanton, where there was only one track in either direction, in railway parlance Up towards Derby and London, Down to Leeds. On either side of the two track section there were four or more tracks so signalmen could divert slower moving coal and freight trains to allow passenger services to overtake.

A 1917 plan of the lines near Waterloo Colliery Sidings. (Courtesy Midland Railway Study Centre.)

The four track section on the Leeds side of Woodlesford began at Waterloo Colliery Sidings signal box, about a mile from the station, and ran past Rothwell Haigh, Stourton engine shed, marshalling yards at Stourton and Hunslet, all the way to Engine Shed Junction at Holbeck just short of Leeds station. Land for the widening between Waterloo and Stourton had been bought in the 1890s with the two extra tracks being brought into use in 1902. Plans also existed as far back as the 1870s to quadruple the tracks through Woodlesford but they were abandoned.

The Waterloo box came under the management of the Woodlesford stationmaster. It had originally been built to serve a colliery between the railway and canal but had retained its name even though the pit had closed. Latterly, after 1948, coal trains for Skelton Grange power station were routed through Waterloo and the sidings there were used to store passenger carriages for use on football specials and excursion trains.

One of the controllers who often looked after the line through Woodlesford was Maurice Boddy. Born in 1932, the son of a Leeds tram worker, he joined British Railways as a goods clerk just short of his 16th birthday in 1948. After a two year stint in the Royal Air Force he was promoted to Leeds Control in 1953 and stayed until 1965 before moving to Derby to become a pioneer in the use of computers in railway management.

In the 1950s and into the 1960s Maurice witnessed many changes including the introduction of diesel locomotives and the gradual decline in the coal traffic. Another significant effect on train services through Woodlesford was their full absorption by the North Eastern Region in 1957. Previously, after nationalisation in 1948, the operation of the line had been overseen from Derby as part of the London Midland Region. Later, after senior managers at York took over, the express passenger services were downgraded and eventually re-routed between Leeds and Wakefield.

A British Rail Class 37 loco arriving at Waterloo with a train of loaded coal wagons from Healey Mills yard for Skelton Grange in the 1970s. The photo was taken from the second man’s seat in the cab of a Class 31 loco on the K57 trip working waiting at a signal on the Up goods line. (Courtesy Michael Kaye.)

Maurice Boddy visited Waterloo and Woodlesford signal boxes several times where he met face to face with some of the signalmen he had got to know by name over the open telephone circuit connecting them to Leeds.

As on the rest of the ex-Midland network the signalmen were using devices called rotary interlocking block instruments to prevent trains from running into block sections already occupied by preceding trains. It was a technology that was perfectly safe if operated within the rules and no serious accidents are thought to have occurred in the vicinity of Woodlesford during Maurice’s time.

However, in November 1956, a Normanton based guard was killed at Newlay north of Leeds when a freight train from Carlisle ran into the back of another freight train which was moving slowly in the same block section. A signalmen had forgotten about the first train which had been stopped at signals as he had been gossiping with his colleague on the phone. In a verbal agreement they agreed to manually release the locked instrument so a signal could be pulled off and the collision followed. The inspector also noted significant irregularities in the way that trains had been recorded in the train registers in each box and criticised the slack oversight by senior managers.

Another unique aspect of the Midland line, different to the other routes into Leeds, was the practice of train drivers whistling to signalmen to indicate which route they needed. At Woodlesford, for instance, a certain number of whistles indicated that, at Methley Junction, a driver wanted to take his train towards Castleford rather than on the main line to Altofts. Maurice recalled that one substitute driver, without route knowledge, forgot the whistle code and his train ended up at Normanton and had to be terminated!

Click on the links below to listen to Maurice Boddy’s memories of working in the Leeds Control office and of the line between Leeds and Normanton.

“All the engines had one livery – filthy black.”

“It was a busy little railway.”

“You whistled for the branch.”

Click here to read articles by Maurice Boddy published in the Railway Observer in March and April 2013.

Maurice Boddy in retirement at the National Railway Museum at York.