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On 30th May 2012 a small group of signalmen from the SDR were invited for an official visit to Exeter Panel Signal Box. The visit was organised by Charles Fennamore, who is our signalling inspector on the SDR, and Phillip Bellamy, one of our assistant signalling inspectors, who also happens to be a signaller for network rail and works Exeter Panel.

First off, for those who know little or nothing about Exeter Panel I have included a brief history of the signalling around Exeter and how the Panel came to be.

As anybody with an interest in railways knows, the 1960’s were a sad time for the railways of Devon, and indeed the country as a whole, with severe rationalisations being the order of the day. Motor vehicles where becoming more accessible to the masses and with this traffic on the railways, particularly branch lines became uneconomical to run, steam was seen as old fashioned and labour intensive, therefore being phased out in favour of other methods of traction.
By the end of the 1960’s Devon’s railway map had been reduced considerably, gone were the Teign Valley, Moretonhampstead, Ashburton, Kingsbridge and Launceston great western branch lines. Main line stations did not face much better fates, with all but a handful surviving.
However through all this rationalising the layout at Exeter St David’s emerged relatively unscathed, maintaining most of its expanse of sidings. Inevitably with the passing of steam St David’s did lose its engine shed and inclined coal stage. The five mechanical signal boxes were still in use Exeter West, Exeter Middle, Exeter East, Exeter Goods Yard, and Exeter Riverside. The West Box having been fitted with a 131-lever frame as recent as 1959, which replaced the original 114-lever frame from 1913. Goods traffic remained to be handled at the site and the double-track freight avoiding line west of the platforms was retained.

Rationalisation was still on the agenda though as on 22nd November 1973, Exeter East Box was closed, Exeter Riverside Box being retained to control the sidings north of Red Cow Crossing. In 1977, the South Devon Railway, Broad Gauge carriage shed had its tracks lifted and, in June of that year, the historic structure was demolished and the site was absorbed into the Royal Mail sorting centre.
February 1978 saw the demise of the freight avoiding lines, and with them Exeter Goods Yard Box was closed. All sidings over Red Cow Level Crossing were divided in two, leaving only the main platform lines through the level crossing.

The 1980s, rationalisation and modernisation gathering apace, On 5th April 1981, Exeter Riverside Signal Box was taken out of use, leaving only the Middle and West Boxes.
Work commenced on a new electric ‘power box.’ in 1983, eventually to control a complete series of multi-aspect colour lights with continuous track circuiting, stretching from Curry Rivel on the Berks and Hants line, and just north of Bridgewater on the Bristol line, through Taunton, Tiverton to Exeter, the Barnstable branch line up to Crediton and the old Southern line up to St James's Park just beyond Exeter Central, then down the Sea wall to Newton Abbot, the Paignton branch and the main line through Totnes up to about South Brent. It fringe boxes are Plymouth, Paignton, Crediton, Exmouth Junction, Westbury and Bristol. So in all the ‘box would control most of Devon and into Somerset.

The site identified as the preferred location for the new signalling centre was that of the former atmospheric pump house at the south end of the station. Sadly another historical building was to meet its demise in the name of modernisation. The new building is a three storey modern style affair, the ground floor housing all the relays, processors, telecoms and electronics that make everything work. The middle floor houses air conditioning and heating systems to help keep the temperature of the electrical equipment right and the top floor is the operation floor housing the panel itself.
The first stage of re-signalling involved the area immediately around the new box, namely St David’s station area, northwards to Stoke Canon on the main line, and to Crediton on the Barnstaple branch.  Cowley Bridge Junction Box had survived up to now, controlling what was the junction of the Southern Main line to Plymouth but was by now only a single-track connection between the Crediton and Paddington lines.
The changeover from mechanical to electric signalling began at on Friday 29th March 1985, the works being finalised over the weekend. At 06:10 on Monday 1st April 1985, the new signalling centre and colour aspect lights were commissioned, with Exeter Middle and Cowley Bridge Junction signal boxes being taken out of use.
Exeter West Box remained in use until 6th May 1985, when both it and the remaining cabin at Exeter Central were decommissioned.

Exeter West Box was saved for preservation by the ‘Exeter West Group’, on closure all components were labelled and the cabin dismantled, being re-erected at Crewe in 1991.
During the re-signalling the track layout at St David’s was extensively altered, the number of points and crossings was reduced. The centre line between platform Nos. 1 and 3 was removed, the junction at the south end of the station was remodelled, now trains approaching from Exeter Central would use platforms 1 and 3, removing the need for them to cross the main line clear. Prior to this services from Exeter Central had used the central island platform at St David’s, and were therefore required to cross the paths of Paddington trains on the level. In spite of the station rationalisation, the sidings to the north of Red Cow Crossing were retained including those tracks of Riverside Yard. On the ‘down’ side a pair of sidings were kept for the storage of rolling stock and became known as ‘New Yard’.
Taunton was transferred over to Exeter Panel on 21st March 1987, Newton Abbott on 4th May, and on 9th November its control reached Totnes.
30th May 2012
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Our evening was to start outside the main entrance for the box at 18:30, unfortunately the train Charlie was travelling on was delayed - more on this later - however the group of us that had assembled were invited into the complex where the ‘box is located. On reaching the box we were greeted by Bernhard Waldon who led us up to the operating floor. A brief pause in the stairwell as our group admired the collage of photographs on the wall. Walking into the operating room the size of the panel became very apparent, the room itself is about 30m (100ft) by 15m (50ft), three quarters of which is taken up by the panel.

First impressions as you walk in are Star Trek, a large semi-circular track diagram is the back drop, with operating panels, also in a semi-circular layout in front of the diagram. Behind the operating panels is a raised platform, originally where the station announcers would have sat. It looks very much like the bridge of the Enterprise!
Looking into the panel, it certainly does have the air of a space ship about it!
The large track diagram, which is about 16-18 meters (55-60ft) long, depicts all of the area controlled by the ‘box. The operations themselves are divided into 3 panel positions, spread out over 5 actual control consoles. The first panel, which was being attended to by David Wagner, controls the southern end of the layout. That is, the main line from about South Brent, Totnes station and the SDR connection, Newton Abbott Station and the line down to Paignton, Teignmouth and the Sea wall section up to Exminster. The next panel controls from Exminster through Exeter St. Thomas, Exeter St. Davids with all its sidings, Exeter Central and the southern line up to St James’ Park, the Barnstaple branch down to Crediton and the main line up to just past Stoke Canon. It also controls Red Cow level crossing at Exeter St Davids and Stoke Canon level crossing.
The final panel controls from east of Stoke Canon through Tiverton, Taunton station and the West Somerset Railway connection, Cogload junction, the Bristol main line up to Bridgwater and the Westbury main line up to Curry Rivel and was being attended to by Bernhard, who had led us into the building.

It now became clear to us why Charlie’s train had been delayed. Phil Bellamy, who was operating the Exeter Panel, was dealing with an incident. He had to stop and warn drivers of all trains after two teenagers had been spotted with bicycles between the running lines! One of the trains Phil had stopped was the one Charlie had caught. We waited patiently, out the way, for Charlie to arrive, watching in wonder as Phil was on the phone to various people about the incident whilst still carrying on with signalling trains through Exeter. Pressing buttons here and there, switching this and that. It all looked quite bewildering.
Later in the evening after things had calmed down; Phil Bellamy grants a line blockage whilst John Haslam over looks. On the centre screen can be seen Red Cow crossing.
Charlie arrived shortly after and became our tour guide, he explained to us what all the components were and how everything worked. By now Phil had cleared up the trespass incident and everything had calmed down and we were able to stand and observe the signallers at work, any questions we had they were more than happy to answer, explaining to us what moves they were doing and why, telling us what trains were and where they were off to.  Phil explained the diagram to us, what each component was for and how that actually correlated to the infrastructure out on location. We were then shown how the panels worked, with Phil talking us through step by step as he performed moves and explained what the system was doing with each step and why it did certain things differently to others. All very interesting stuff, quite mind boggling, even considering that the technology is a dinosaur compared with the latest developments!

The basics Phil explained to us were along the lines of this;
The ‘box itself is a Westinghouse NX Panel type power box, built by Westinghouse in Chippenham and transported in sections to Exeter, then reassembled in its final position. The control interface is laid out in panels, hence being classed as a panel type box. The NX refers to eNtry-eXit, which is the method used for controlling train movements by routes.
Using this method a signaller routing a train does not set each of the points for the route and clear the relevant signals as he would in a manual ‘box. He instead, selects an entry point on the panel and presses an associated button, at this point the button will begin to flash, confirming to the signaller that the system has acknowledged his selection. Next the signaller will select the exit point for the route he requires the train to follow, again by pressing the associated button. The system will check that no conflicting routes are already set and then illuminate the associated buttons to confirm the route.
Now the signaller only needs to observe as the system proceeds automatically, switching the relevant point work to the correct position, engaging all facing point locks and confirming that all are correctly locked and proven to be in the correct position. As these checks are being performed the illuminated track diagram lights up by a series of yellow LEDs to show the route selected, moving from the entry point selected by the signaller, like a snake it follows the route, pauses at point work, giving a flashing indication whilst the system performs its movement and checks, once confirmed to be in the correct position, the LEDs through the point illuminate. This process continues up to the exit point, providing lit confirmation of the route.
Providing all relevant points are correctly locked and proven the system will then proceed and change the aspect of the colour light signals out on the trackside. The illuminated diagram shows the relevant signals and a red or green LED will be illuminated depending on the aspect being show by the actual signal. All of these steps happen in a very short space of time, the process which takes the most time is the actual movement of the point work on the ground, limited by the speed of the point motors themselves, otherwise it would all happen in the blink of an eye!
The passage of trains through a route is indicated by the yellow LEDs turning to red, this snakes its way along with the progress of the train. There are strategically placed train describers along the diagram so that the signallers can identify each individual train, these consist of a four digit code which is unique to each train, essentially replacing head codes on locomotives. As the train passes a signal the system automatically places that signal at danger (red), protecting the train and enforcing the absolute block system of only one train, in one direction, in one section, at any one time. The same system that has been used for the safe passage of trains on our railways for well over a century.

Once a train has passed through a route a single yellow LED at the entry point starts to flash, this indicates to the signaller that the route is ‘spent’ and that he needs to reset the route before he can set another route. This set up is unique to the western region as all other region panels automatically reset after the passage of a train.
The southern end of the diagram showing Totnes and the SDR connection along the bottom and Teignmouth, Dawlish and the sea wall along the top. Note the yellow LEDs showing the routes set, through Totnes the up train (6Z10) is being signalled straight through on the main line and the next down train is signalled through the platform road. On top 2F57 and 1V64 are passing each other on the sea wall.
Our visit lasted for about three hours, once we had been shown how everything worked and understood what was going on we observed the passage of many trains. Watching them snake their way gently across the diagram, a few button presses here and there, it was all quite calm with the late evening timetable. A signallers job may be seen as easy if you were to only see the tranquil part, but as we had seen earlier on in the evening a signaller really earns his money when something out of the ordinary happens, something which a computer will never be able to deal with.
Our group gradually filtered away, I was the last to leave at 21:30 nearly being evicted by Phil! I could have spent hours watching, there is something quite addictive about watching the trains progressing across the diagram.
I am sure I can speak for all who attended the visit, a very big thank you to Charles Fennamore and Phil Bellamy for organising the visit itself. Also a thank you to Bernhard Waldon and David Wagner for putting up with us descending upon them and answering all of our questions. Thank you for what was a most enjoyable and educational evening.

To anyone whom ever gets the chance, it is certainly worth a visit!

Alan Johnson.
Exeter power signal box before commissioning - pictures courtesy of Guy Collins.
Exeter Panel
Exeter Panel Gallery