For nearly 30 years I have been volunteering for the Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales. Most of my time has been spent guarding trains, and I had a spell of being a Controller. Recently I qualified to operate the Rhiw Goch signalbox, and when it opened in 2014 Porthmadog signalbox.
During my August 2016 visit I spent one day in Porthmadog signalbox and two days in Rhiw Goch signalbox. So what is entailed in working Rhiw Goch ‘box?
Chronicling the event of my second day, at 10:00 I arrived at Porthmadog Harbour station. The stock for the train (10:35 – Reporting number F05) that was to take me to Rhiw Goch was already in platform 2 with the Lynton & Barnstaple replica locomotive – Lyd at the front. I said hello to the guards, Jeff and Nigel, leaving my bag and coat in the guards compartment.
Reporting to the Control Office, I booked on for my day’s duty including ti check if there were any extra trains expected (as there has been in the previous days). I had left the water container at Rhiw Goch two days previously, so that was one less thing to remember. I assisted the guard with the dispatch of the train, and checked the tickets in the first class observation carriage. At Minffordd, I reminded the fireman that I wish the train to stop at Rhiw Goch.
Five minutes after the Penrhyn request stop, the train slowed for the Rhiw Goch stop at 10:59. As Lyd took the train on its journey to Blaenau Ffestiniog across Cei Mawr, the dry stone embankment, I called Control reporting my arrival and requesting them to call me when the section was clear.
Rhiw Goch signalbox is located around 4 miles from Porthmadog midway between Minffordd and Tan-y-Bwlch stations. These stations have loops which are automatically worked by trains approaching and train crew withdrawing the appropriate train staff. The train staff is the driver authority and guarantee that there is no other train in the single line between two passing loops. Rhiw Goch is normally switched out and forms part of the Minffordd to Tan-y-Bwlch long section. When it is opened the long section staff is withdrawn from an intermediate instrument (taken from a train parked within the box limits) and inserted into the level frame.
So whilst waiting for permission to open, I put the kettle on for a mug of tea. At 11:14, Control called back any gave permission to open. The opening code 5-5-5 was recording in the train register with a time of 11:15.
Shortly, at 11:37, the Minffordd buzzer went when the firemaon F07 (11:25 from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog). The buzzer was accepted and the release switch held down to enable the fireman to withdraw the token.
To enable the train to progress beyond Rhiw Goch, the train will need the the Rhiw Goch to Tan-y-Bwlch train staff. I contacted Control requesting permission to withdraw the token. Permission received, I wound the remote operator, received a clear indication and moved to the staff instrument to withdraw a staff.
With the token withdrawn, the route was set through the loop on the signalling panel.
At 11:50 double fairlie Earl of Merionith passed through exchanging the Minffordd staff for the Tan-y-Bwlch staff. 14 minutes later Tan-y-Bwlch called requesting the staff to proceed to Rhiw Goch. Both Minffordd and Tan-y-Bwlch are normally operated by the train crew using remote operators, however they are both capable of being manned with a signalman with communication being by block bell. Similar for the up train going to Tan-y-Bwich, I followed a similar process to obtain a Minffordd staff and set the route through the loop for a down train.
On the first day (Monday), it was a sunny, warm day with a gentle breeze. On this day (Wednesday), it was overcast and chilly. Around midday there was a shower of rain. I decided to light the stove, which was installed when the box was rebuilt several years ago.
A similar process was followed for trains going past until mid afternoon when in quick succession, I received calls from both Minffordd and Tan-y-Bwlch for a timetabled crossing. This is also challenging in that both trains were too long for the loop. The maximum length of a train that can be put into the main line is just longer than both trains. My plan is to stop both trains at the home signals, with the route through the loop set for the down train. The up train will be brought in the main line and stopped, with the Minffordd staff taken from the train. Once safely inside station limits, the bottom end points set for the loop and by passing the Minffordd staff through the instrument a release is obtained for the signals and the route is completed though the loop. Through the loop passed double fairlie David Lloyd George the train staffs being exchanged. Once the end of the train is clear of the top end points, I set up the route for the Blaenau bound train (F13 – 15:45 Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog), passing the staff through the instrument to obtain the release for the signals. Once the train staff is handed to the engine crew on Earl of Merioneth the train continues on its journey to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Getting to the end of the shift, when reporting in the time of the crossing, I ask to be notified when F13 reaches Tan-y-Bwlch so Rhiw Goch ‘box can be closed and operation reverted to long section (Minffordd to Tan-y-Bwlch) operation. Waiting to be called back, I cleaned out the stove, leaving it ready for the next user to lay a fire. Following a call from Control, at 16:32 the code 7-5-5 closing box code was recorded and I request P12 (16:00 Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog) stop to pick me up. Waiting for it to arrive I collected belongings together putting them back into my bag.
Remembering to take the, now empty, water canister back to Porthmadog I collect my belongings and board the train when it arrived at 16:45. Travelling back to Porthmadog in the guard’s compartment I talk with the guard, when he is not carrying out his duties at the stops of Penrhyn and Minffordd. Upon arrival at Porthmadog, I return the water canister to its storage cupboard and visit the Control Office to book off.