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Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Signalling

I recently mentioned four boxes of discoloured colour slides I came across when scanning in. Several people suggested, and indeed showed, it was not difficult to recover at least something like their original appearance. I said I’d try, but needed to get out an old computer with Photoshop Elements which came bundled free with a scanner. These days they expect you to buy it over and over again with a subscription. I refuse to be treated as an income stream.

I got out the old computer but have not made much progress yet. This is not down to any difficulty with Photoshop, but because of distraction. The old computer also contains a set of PC-Rail signalling simulations.    

They might not sound it, but they’re great, they really are – not because of what you do or see but because of what you imagine. You pretend you are controlling all the trains through York, the noise and the power and the enormity of the things, and imagine being on board, remembering journeys once made.  

It could be the summer of 1983, when they invited me to interview for a research job in the world-famous Department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh. I travelled up from Hull and back in a day, changing at Selby during its last months as a station on the East Coast Main Line before being bypassed by the coalfield diversion They wanted to offer me the job too – they phoned the same evening – but were then overruled by the funding council who insisted on someone either with or close to finishing a Ph.D.

Or it could be any one of the many other times I’ve been through York by train, up to Newcastle, Edinburgh or Glasgow, visiting clients when I was with the software company, or later, to see students on work placement. I once went to Aberdeen on the overnight sleeper, did what I had to do there, returned the next night and was back at work by 9 a.m.

It’s tricky signalling a path through York for the Scarborough Transpennines. They come in from Leeds on the top left of the above screen and need to get to Platform 4 and the Scarborough line on the bottom right. The screen shot shows train 1B23 (Blackpool to Scarborough) nearly there after crossing the East Coast Main Line just outside the station. I have to be careful not to hold up trains from Doncaster and London. I am being distracted by train 2C26 coming in from Harrogate at the other end of the station (below) where it has to get to Platform 8 without  holding up trains from Newcastle and Edinburgh. Fortunately, it’s not very busy – not yet. 

Sheffield is great, too – quite demanding. You control everything from Dore Junction and the Bradway tunnel south of the station (on the left in the screenshot below), to Meadowhall to the north. You have to put goods trains into loop lines to give priority to the London and Cross Country expresses on the Midland Main Line. Oh to be on the Aberdeen to Penzance!

I’ve been through Sheffield a lot too: south to the East Midlands where the software company was based, north to Leeds, York and beyond, and East towards Doncaster and Hull when I lived and worked there. These days you might find me taking the Barnsley branch home. Mother-in-law used to do it when she travelled up from Hertfordshire and changed trains at Sheffield, complaining it was so much easier when we lived near Nottingham, horrified by the Barnsley accents on the local train and dreading her grandchildren might grow up to speak like that. They got called posh at school.  

The full simulations are not free, but there are evaluation versions which run for thirty minutes or so without charge, which is all I have ever done. With well over a hundred different stations or eras, there is plenty to do. Some are “heritage” simulations which recreate mechanical lever-framed signal boxes communicating with adjacent boxes through working block instruments and bells. I’ve played with quite a lot of them, both modern and heritage, always there personally in the mind’s eye.

Now, what about those photographs.

29 comments:

  1. This does not look like something I'd be interested in...my train of thought is often derailed. :D

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  2. It's a good thing I don't play around with such things. I'd have trains crashing left, right and centre.

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    1. As with the real systems, you can't crash trains, but I have had them all in the wrong platforms and a couple of hours late.

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  3. I have the utmost respect for those who work at any type of traffic control, with air traffic probably being the most complex and difficult. If it was me, I'd be completely overwhelmed as soon as I would have to keep track of more than two trains or planes at the same time!

    The Transpennine Express is probably the train I have been using the most over the last 20 years or so, when in England. Several times I have been to Scarborough by train, and just seeing it mentioned here on your post makes me long for it.

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    1. You can see the appeal. You sigal it through the station and imagine it's the train you're on.
      I once played with an air traffic control simuation but that really was overwhelming.

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  4. Goodness me. Do you wear an anorak too?

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  5. Controlling trains through York sounds like good fun to me. Safety systems would prevent you from crashing trains into each other and generally there would not be a lot now for a train controller to do until things go wrong. That is when a train controller comes into their own as they juggle services to maximise throughput with the least inconvenience to passengers. Passengers need to remember that when there is a disruption, the effort behind the scenes to make things right is immense, but for the greater good and not personalised.

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    1. Real-life documentaries on TV show how hard it can be when things go wrong. They have also centralised the signalling centres so they cover enormous areas. I believe the York signalling centre now handles trains over much of Yorkshire and the East Coast Main Line.

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  6. A friend of mine who was also a light aircraft pilot decided he might like to become an air traffic controller so he took a course. They seated him in front of a screen and simulated various airports with incomings and outgoings as would be average on any given day. He coped quite well, but then they simulated situations whereby one small error from him would result in the deaths of hundreds of people, and that's when he fell apart. He dropped out of the course for fear of a nervous breakdown.

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    1. I believe that ATC suffer high levels of stress. It's probably better to have ones that realise how serious errors can be rather than a devil-may-care attitude, but it's no could if nerves get in the way.

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  7. I will think about this train signaling when I head through York on the train from London to Edinburgh in a few weeks. Must say, this kind of thing does remind me of my trainspotting days as a kid. Always trying to figure out where trains were coming from and going (mostly in/out of Euston), along with getting engine numbers. Always the only girl on the local overpass and a Yank to boot. Wish I still had my notebook.

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    1. In a way it's like looking at maps, making links between different places and imagining being there.
      It's a great train ride north from York. Look out for Holy Island north of Newcastle.

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  8. Hmmmm....Phoebe, have you been supervising this use of time?

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    1. I have to be available every second to let inand out when she wants. Railway simulations can be pawsed.

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  9. My brain gave up on things as brain-consuming as that many moons ago. Now slides....well that more my line (so to speak).

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    1. We have immense ability to find distractions from things we don't really want to do.

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  10. Do you wear a top hat when doing the railway signalling simulations - like The Fat Controller in "Thomas the Tank Engine"?

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    1. If I remember correctly, the Fat Controller is not a signalman, and anyway I'm not fat. How about you?

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    2. Do you like the Sheffield diagram? I guess you know there are tunnels under the station through which several rivers run.

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    3. Not several rivers - just two - The Sheaf and the Porter. I have never been under the station but I know there's a huge manmade cavern there - known as The Megatron. It needs to be big to cope with flood volumes of water. No I do not wear a top hat.

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  11. Loads of endless amusement, both to your readers and yourself, The trains here to Manchester have been running pretty badly the last few weeks. Could that be you?

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    1. It could well be. The Manchester simulation if pretty difficult, especially Piccadilly where you have to get the London trains out of the sidings.

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  12. Dear Tasker, on one of our narrow boat-trips we visited the National Railway Museum, York - it was overwhelming! So beautiful locomotives, so interesting informations.

    When I saw how they make schedules work, handle the signals etc, I swore that I will never complain about a late train again: it is a wonderwork of precision and brainpower. Admiration pure for thinking up such complicated plans!

    Another time I was in Aberdeen - it was the most strange impression of a city I ever had - grey.

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    1. York NRM is a good day out so long as you don't go too often. I also like the heritage railways - the Keighley Worth Valley is good with a walk up into Haworth at the end, also the North York Moors one. I used to spend a lot of time in Aberdeen and liked it a lot, especially to north-eastern Scottish accent once I got the ear for it.

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  13. I was fascinated by the railroads in England and over on "the Continent" when we visited back in 1985. I wonder if they are still as abundant and oh-so-efficient.

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    1. I'm not sure people in the UK would agree that our railways are abundant and efficient, and we tend to perceive that the ones on the continent are better. However, yes, definitely fascinating (to some of us at least). I have a both modern and 1930s rail route maps which I could look at for hours.

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