Marking 40 years since the closure of St Albans South Signal Box

St Albans South Signal Box in 1946.

St Albans South Signal Box in 1946. - Credit: Archant

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the final closing by British Rail of the signal box that sits at the London end of St Albans City Station.

St Albans South Signal Box in its final operational state in the 1970s.

St Albans South Signal Box in its final operational state in the 1970s. - Credit: Archant

For nearly 90 years from 1892 the signal box controlled part of the railway through St Albans. Then over the next 20 years it lay unoccupied and deteriorating before the St Albans Signal Box Preservation Trust was formed in 2003 to restore it to its former glory.

In the early days of the railways control was somewhat haphazard. It was based on allowing intervals of time between trains by railway policemen (‘bobbies’) at the side of the line using flags. But the ‘bobbies’ had no knowledge of where the preceding train might be. This resulted in accidents many of which were the subject of public enquiries. These investigations resulted, slowly, in the introduction of rudimentary control methods aided by the development of the electric telegraph.

Initially small shelters were built alongside signal posts to house the people who operated each signal. For reasons of economy and better control of trains methods were developed to operate signals and points remotely; the levers could then be placed together to form the more familiar signal boxes. Each box controlled a ‘section’ or ‘block’ of railway routes. Government legislation was imposed on the

Victorian railway companies with eventually the 1889 ‘Regulation of Railways Act’ requiring all the companies to ensure that the signal box levers were ‘interlocked’ to prevent signalmen (no women signallers in those days) from setting up train movements that could cause accidents.

The Flying Scotsman passing St Albans South Signal Box in 1965.

The Flying Scotsman passing St Albans South Signal Box in 1965. - Credit: Archant

When the Midland Railway Company opened its line through St Albans in 1867 there were only two sets of tracks. These needed a much smaller signal box than the one we see today. However traffic levels grew steadily and resulted in the company expanding to four tracks in the late 1880s. This brought about the need for more signals and points to control the trains and, hence, a larger signal box

The new signal box was opened on 12th June 1892. It was essentially a ‘flat packed’ wooden building that was constructed at the Derby Signalling Works along with all the operating equipment and brought by rail to St Albans to be erected. Whilst some of the internal equipment changed over the ensuing years, the appearance of the signal box remained unaltered until 1963 when toilet facilities were added to the upper level at the south end.

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The signal box was normally operated by one man who at certain times of the day would be extremely busy looking after a never ending succession of goods trains going north and south as well as a good number of passenger services. The box remained open 24/7; three regular signalmen each worked eight hour shifts.

The fate of the signal box was sealed with the decision by BR to resignal the lines from St Pancras in the 1970s as a prelude to electrification of the train services. So on the night of 2nd December 1979

St Albans South Signal Box in 1950.

St Albans South Signal Box in 1950. - Credit: Archant

Signalman Geoff Ryland signed off from his shift and passed signalling through St Albans into the hands of the new power signal box at West Hampstead. For the next six months the box was occupied by the station announcer.

The signal box had been granted listed building status by the Government in February 1979 and it could therefore not be demolished but equally was not needed by the railway. What followed is another story.

Up until 1970 there was a smaller signal box known as St Albans North. This was situated opposite to Clarence Park just beyond Hatfield Road and controlled the northern exit from the goods yard where the present station car park and main buildings stand.

This article has been written by Richard Kirk on behalf of the St Albans Signal Box Preservation Trust. The Signal Box and garden are currently closed due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Please see for any updates.