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Heritage signalling aspirations

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It is always surprising to see the level of ingenuity that exists on heritage railways to overcome constraints in both operating and engineering practice. These railways do not have big budgets and solutions to problems have to be realistic on cost and cover any safety implications. The Keighley and Worth Valley line is no exception to this situation and a recent visit by the IRSE Minor Railways Section revealed some interesting aspects as to how the railway is signalled.

The line has been in the ‘preservation’ business for many years. Built by local mill owners but operated, and later taken over, by the Midland Railway to connect the main line through the West Yorkshire town of Keighley with the mills and associated communities up the Worth Valley, it was closed by British Rail (BR) in 1962 (pre Beeching). Most famous of these communities is Haworth, the home of the Bronte family where the famous sisters wrote their powerful novels in the Victorian era.

The terminus is at Oxenhope, some five miles from the starting point, so it is not a long line in terms of heritage operations. BR management was blinkered to the tourist prospects of the area but local interest was not so short sighted and a preservation society was duly formed.

It took until 1968 for the railway to re-open in a very basic form. Over time, a locomotive workshop and shed has been provided at Haworth, a carriage depot and exhibition shed at Oxenhope and a rail museum at Ingrow. The railway became famous when the ‘The Railway Children’ film was first shot on the line in 1970, using Oakworth station and tunnel as the centrepiece, traffic booming as a result. This created many capacity problems and new facilities including signalling became a necessity. In 2018, the railway will celebrate 50 years in preservation.

Operating the line

Before the BR closure, the whole line had been worked as one single line section and this was how the preservation days started. A BR signalbox existed at Keighley and controlled the connection to the main Leeds – Settle – Carlisle line but, at all locations on the branch, ground frames were used for level crossing protection, for access to sidings and for the run round loops at Keighley and Oxenhope. The single line One Train Working Staff incorporated an Annett’s Key to release the ground frame control levers.

With passenger levels rising following the Railway Children film, single section working could not cope with the crowds on busy days and thus, in 1971, an intermediate passing loop was provided at Damems, roughly half way along the line, to allow two train operation. This was a virgin site and had no electricity or running water when built.

Initially, the two ends of the loop were controlled by ground frames to enable early implementation. A signal box was subsequently provided, coming from Frizinghall on the Shipley to Bradford Forster Square line. With no electric power or mains water, the facilities here were at first very basic and signalling power came from dry cells. Subsequently, both utilities have been installed, making it more comfortable for the signalman.

One Train Working continues to be used for operation of a single train over the whole line, but when the signalbox is opened the OTW Staff is locked in the frame and Electric Token Block Working using Tyer’s Key Token instruments is enabled on the two sections thus created.

The signalled level crossing at Damems station (in truth a one coach halt) was originally ground- frame operated but, again, crossing keeper comfort needed attention and a small gate box was recovered from Earby on the now closed Colne to Skipton line. The gates still have to be manually opened and closed. Treadle-operated annunciators alert the crossing keeper to an approaching train.

At Keighley, the railway controls two platforms (numbers 3 and 4) but, on most operating days, only Platform 4 is used for passenger trains. The connections to Platform 3 at each end, needed for locomotive run round purposes, are operated by two ground frames, North and West. These are operated by the train crew using the Annett’s Key on the end of the One Train Working Staff or the Keighley section token. When Platform 3 is also to be used for passenger trains, Station Yard Working is introduced, as described later.

Sidings exist at Ingrow, Haworth (which also has a loop to facilitate entrance and exit to the locomotive shed from either direction, as well as local running round) and Oxenhope (for the carriage sidings and exhibition shed), all of which are ground frame controlled by Annett’s Key.

Signalling technology

As with most heritage lines, much of the signalling has been acquired after modernisation and closures on the main line network made equipment redundant. The railway has perpetuated some Midland Railway practice. The catch handle frame at Damems Junction passing loop box is of the Midland tumbler type, a locking technology requiring particular knowledge to modify and to record on drawings. The frame at Damems Crossing is a Midland tappet type. Home signals are a mixture of Midland lower quadrant (a type no longer seen on the main line) and LMS or BR(ER) upper quadrant semaphores with fixed distant signals.

With Damems Station and Junction being very close to each other, there was considered to be a risk of trains going towards Keighley ‘reading through’ the loop outlet signal at danger if the level crossing protection signal was off. To prevent this, the level crossing signal is ‘slotted’ from Damems Junction. In technical terms, this means having two return weights, requiring a lever in both boxes to be pulled off before the signal arm clears to proceed; an example of past technology that is rarely seen nowadays.

Another curiosity can be found at Oxenhope. The points leading to the carriage sheds and the run round loop at the North end have an ‘economical’ type of facing point lock mechanism developed by the Midland Railway to achieve movement and locking with only one lever.

The point stretcher bar has a vertical roller that engages with a slot cut into a movable plate. When the lever is pulled, the plate moves parallel to the track, with the roller being moved sideways by the main diagonal portion of the slot to move the switch rails. At each end of the slot there is a short portion parallel to the track that imparts no further movement to the switches. The plate incorporates a pair of lock hooks, one of which locates behind part of the stretcher during the final stage of the plate’s movement in each direction. Thus the plate performs both a moving and locking action.

This arrangement was always tricky to adjust and the points were often ‘heavy’ to pull. All other facing points on the railway have the more usual two-lever arrangement with the facing point lock activated separately.

The simple working method at Keighley is satisfactory for normal two-train operation but the use of both platforms for passenger movements enables more operational flexibility for special workings such as galas, including the running of Ingrow shuttle services. On such occasions, ‘Station Yard Working’ is introduced under the control of a Keighley signalman. An Outer Home signal (normally off) on the approach to Keighley is placed to Danger from an adjacent ground frame known as Globe GF after the adjacent public house. This releases a key for the signalman to release the two ground frames at Keighley station yard.

Shunt signals in the Keighley station yard area, which are normally physically covered, have their covers removed and are also worked from the ground frames. The Station Yard Working key enables the signalman to operate the ground frames and control the run round and other movements within the station yard with a train in section, the yard being protected by the Outer Home signal at Danger.

To allow a train to approach the yard from the section, the signalman clears a subsidiary signal beneath the Outer Home but controlled from Keighley West ground frame. The driver is thereby informed that Station Yard Working is in operation at Keighley, to approach cautiously, obey ground signals and deliver the Staff or Token to the Signalman on arrival.

The signalman has to walk to and fro between each end of the station for run round moves, which is a bit time consuming. The intention is therefore to have the station fully signalled from a conventional signalbox, already erected and having previously been at Shipley Bingley Junction. Additional levers have been added to the original frame making 32 in all.

The tappet locking has yet to be fitted and there is very much more work to be done in the box as well as outside, where ducted cable routes have been installed as a first step. The plan is to have mechanical signalling at the West end and power signalling at the North end with track circuits throughout. Signals have been recovered from various locations and a simple gantry is to be built. It is likely to be a five-year project at best.

There is a main line connection at Keighley, used for stock movements and the occasional incoming excursion train. This is protected by a mechanically-operated derailer and requires mutual operation of the release by both K&WVR staff and the signaller in York IECC.


No railway can operate without communications and, unlike the signalling, the telecom systems and equipment are surprisingly modern. Unusually, the line plant still uses an overhead pole route, with 0.5mm drop wire twins rather than open copper wire. Two electronic exchanges exist (at Haworth and Ingrow) of the ISDX type interconnected by digital trunks. These provide a data capability as well as connectivity to the BT network.

To represent heritage practice, the exchanges still accept loop disconnect dialling and many old fashioned telephones exist to create the right ambience.

2.3Mbit data lines are provided to all stations, allowing a virtual network for credit card sales, and this will shortly be extended to gather data from EPOS terminals. Wi-Fi internet access is widely available to staff. An omnibus telephone line calling at all places is kept in place just in case all else fails!

The railway does not have a dedicated radio network other than back-to-back portables of a modern design that can range up to two miles. Other radio communication relies on the public cellular networks. CCTV with digital recording exists at the main places where passengers congregate and some vulnerable sites.

Main stations have PA systems and there is a remote link to Ingrow for when that station is unstaffed. Traditional master clocks drive slaves at some stations and one also sounds a time signal on the omnibus circuit twice daily to provide a common time reference.

Providing EPOS terminals on the trains is a planned next step using public Wi-Fi to link to the railway’s accounting system.

All in all, the K&WVR is a fascinating heritage line that has adapted well to the local area and modern tourist requirements. It has a delightful mixture of old and new technology, with the former comprising equipment no longer seen on the main line. Due recognition is taken of occasional anti-social behaviour in the locality and valuable assets are protected appropriately for when the line is closed. The future sees some signalling challenges at Keighley and we will all watch with interest how this progresses.

Written by Clive Kessell

Thanks to Bruce MacDougall, David Harrison and staff from the railway’s S&T department for their patient explanations.


  1. As I understand it, Oxenhope is not the only location with “economical” point locks. In fact the only ground frames with full point locking are Keighley East & West. Damems loop is also fully locked, of course.

    • Actually the article is accurate. The points at Oxenhope Loop North and Oxenhope Yard have economical locks. All other points in the main line have conventional facing point locks operated by a facing point lock lever. At Oxenhope Loop South, Keighley West and Keighley North, the Annetts lock engages directly with the ground frame locking. At Oxenhope Loop North and Oxenhope Yard the Annetts lock is mounted on and directly releases a release lever that in turn releases the combined point and point lock lever that controls the economical lock mechanism. At all other ground frames, the Annetts lock is mounted on and directly releases the facing point lock lever (which in turn releases the point lever). The points at Damems Junction have separate blue facing point lock levers, which are both shown standing Reverse, which is the locked position, in the photograph. On the ground frames the locks stand normally in, in other words the facing point lock lever stands Normal for locked. Thanks for your interest.

  2. Interesting article. Brought back memories of when I operated the level crossing and ground frame at Damems when I was ‘station master’ there in the early 70s. Of course that was before the loop was built


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