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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Goodbye to the Signalmen - thank you

For well over a century the Fylde's railways have had visible guardians posted at certain key points overseeing manual control of junctions, road crossings and station approaches. From tomorrow no longer is this the case.

The closure of the railway lines emanating west from Preston to the Fylde coast from tomorrow to allow overhead electrification work to proceed to completion this winter means also means removal of the need for signal boxes and the men who have staffed them through the years.

These long familiar remnants of Britain's Victorian railway era when steam locomotives propelled sinewy trains of carriages to and from Blackpool and the Fylde NOW become a fond memory. Replaced instead by electronic signalling devoid of any human engagement to centralised controls over a wider regional network. The now quaint wooden structures with distinctive name boards marking their location and area of trackside responsibility becoming instead anonymous grey boxes alongside the railway with little or no emblematic signage whatsoever.

Yet another link with our railway's heritage and travellers experience is now to be

removed, along with whistle blowing train guards flourishing green flags waving them vigorously towards the train driver signalling the all clear to move off from a station platform. 'All Aboard' now being consigned to childhood memories, along with soot begrimed stations, the smell of burning coal and latterly the pungency of diesel fumes wafting upwards and outwards from heaving exhausts of superannuated rolling stock well beyond its working life that we are encumbered with 'up north'.

Britain's principal railway stations have become cluttered with retailing brands making them simply extensions of that 'shopping experience'. When once a simple WH Smith's booth catered for a diversity of printed newspapers, magazines, and very limited selection of light reading material. Station buffets, at principal points large enough to warrant light dining, came with porcelain marked with the emblem of the national, or formerly the regional, railway company, and limited kitchen offer, but one which was fresh and cooked there and then. Sandwiches usually came in thin white bread slices (no brown) kept under glass covers and with minimal choice; whilst tea was served from large spluttering metal urns casually offered in chipped mugs. And with prices within a few shillings in total. Pound notes were only needed for sit down restaurants. Don't get me started on the dumbed down catering on trains - with an EU citizen (usually) patiently pushing a loaded trolley up and down coaches with unhealthy selection of overpriced non-essentials produced in plastic containers.

Arriving at Blackpool North, Central or South, and I dare say Fleetwood, Poulton, Lytham, St Annes, and possibly even Kirkham, came complete with a small cadre of uniformed Porters on hand to wheel away on metal wheeled hand trolleys, the luggage or large packages of arriving (and departing) passengers. A modest tip in coinage was the obligatory and acceptable transaction thus providing decent earnings for a railway man's family - amazing as it seems today. Such scenes are now consigned to heritage steam railways, in which Britain is fortunately well endowed. Another era, another country even - and definitely one this writer regrets, has moved on. Being able to recall such scenes particularly at Blackpool's Central Station at the commencement of not infrequent journeys down to London Euston for family visits during school holidays - is still a wonderful personal pleasure. Sticking one's youthful head out of the carriage opening window manually controlled through a leather strap, to view more clearly amid streaming smoke from the locomotive ahead - the lines of rolling stock and engines that made Crewe, Willesden and Blackpool Central a mecca for those with passion for 'engine spotting' - makes forever marvellous personal recollections.

Those signal boxes, and there where many, prominently labelled : Crewe South, Preston No 2, Blackpool North Number 1, Kirkham Number 1 and so forth together with large signage 'London Euston 1000 Yards' and symbolic arrow pointing to the final destination, made railway travel so characterful and diverse. No more.

Goodbye to the Signalmen who gave their working careers to providing safety along the tracks, adding character to localities and railway travel in this part of the country.

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