Monday, 29 February 2016

Churnet Valley 2016 Winter Steam-Up!

I've just spent a most enjoyable weekend as signalman in Consall, box on the Churnet Valley Railway for the Steam Gala. What a great weekend! Dry weather and even some sunshine! Lots of passengers as far as I could tell, and everything worked a treat - no loco failures, just a coach that had to be taken off the Ipstones set yesterday setting the schedule back 1/2 hour, most of which we'd made up by end of day.
The maintenance of the signalling equipment by S&T last weekend paid off - in the first intensive use of the token machines everything worked as it should, with no equipment failures at all. Even the signaller managed not to screw up!
I enjoyed the challenges of being in the box, even though that meant no opportunity to get up to the Ipstones line to witness the S160 in full cry. But even pulling up the bank to Consall from London Bridge she was impressive! Her crisp bark echoing off the valley side to give a 'double beat' effect. And that chime whistle echoing up and down the valley. What a loco! 

Here she is, S160 No.6046 blasting up to Ipstones on the Saturday:
Click here

Here are some pictures of the weekend. Click on any one for a larger image.

Working time table for the weekend

Taffy Tank at Leekbrook with replica headboard

Jon Jon Kerr, maestro of the weekend conducts affairs at Cheddleton! 

Emma hangs onto her steed; the Taffy Tank 5619 at Cheddleton 

  Consall Box on Sunday morning just after I'd switched the box in (with me in it, yet to drop the 'up starter' signal behind the train) with the S160 on the back of the departing first train (Polish Tank 'Hotspur' on the front), on its way to Froghall.

 5619 running up to Consall from London Bridge

Gregg in his S160 6046. This locomotive was hired out to the Nene Valley Railway and suffered cylinder hyraulicing which induced the pin holding the piston rod to the crosshead to fall out, allowing the piston to smash through the front of the LH cylinder. It went to Tysley for repairs being returned to the CVR a few weeks ago in time for final preparation, steaming, and running at this gala. The second resident S160 is nearing completion in Cheddleton workshops, so soon the CVR will be able to run two of these magnificent machines!

The enabler for the weekend's intensive timetable is the Tyres Token Machine. This is the one in Consall box, and its partner is in Cheddleton box, and they control the Leekbrook to Consall section. Only one token can be removed from either machine (not both!), and it's not until that token has been replaced into either machine that another can be removed. Since the train needs a token to enter the section, this ensures that only one train can ever be in the section at any time.

5619 photographed from Consall box 

Frank Richards' superb picture of 6046 approaching Consall on Sunday morning 

5619 up out of the valley, on its way to Ipstones 

6046's air pump receives attention in Cheddleton yard 

The first train of the Gala leaves Consall for Froghall on Saturday morning. S160 6046 shown here on the rear of the train, Polish tank 2944 'Hotspur' on the front. The train has brought the combined staff to Consall which I have just separated into the staffs for the Consall - Leekbrook section (which I have inserted into the Tyres Machine) and the Consall - Froghall section (which 'Hotspur' is carrying), and used them to 'switch in' Consall box. Once the entire train has passed the down starter signal (just to the right of 6046) I will drop that signal back to 'on' (danger).

Consall box interior just before switching out Sunday night, the 56XX in the loop waiting for the train from Cheddleton. Once that arrives I'll put the 56XX on the rear of that train and close the box. The combined train with 'Hotspur' on the front and 56XX on the rear will proceed to Froghall, then return to Cheddleton stopping at Consall on the way.

Here is that train returning from Froghall, Consall box in darkness. This is the last train of a very successful Steam Gala weekend.

I've saved the best 'till last. Below is a link to a superb video collation by Liam Marsh. It starts at Consall where I've put the 56XX light engine into the loop platform while I collect the Froghall token from the Ipstones train running into the Main platform. The Ipstones train with the S160 as train engine and 'Hotspur' as tail engine heads off past the Black Lion for Leekbrook.

Liam then takes us to undoubtedly the least picturesque bit of the line, the site of Boulton's Copper Works just north of Froghall. Here we see the 56XX heading up the valley, which rapidly adopts its usual rural tranquillity once away from Boulton's.

We then go up to the Ipstones branch. When the first train we saw on this video reaches Leekbrook, 'Hotspur' will detach an run back to Cheddleton with the token for that section, while the S160 and train head up to Iptones. Look for the flash of reflected fire on smoke and steam as 6046 passes under the bridge at 7:49 on the video.

And finally we see the 56XX 'with 5 on' making short work of the climb to Ipstones, including having conquered the 1 in 40 tight curving climb out of Leekbrook Junction.

And all weekend not a diesel in sight! A true STEAM gala!


Saturday, 20 February 2016

Consall 'box gets woken up!

It's the Churnet Valley Railway's steam gala next weekend and as several trains will be running the signal box at Consall will be in use to allow trains to pass in the loop on this single track railway. The last time the 'box was in use was last September when I was on duty. I will also be on duty both days next weekend, so I volunteered to help S&T (Signal & Telegraph) 'wake the box up' today. You can't just switch on one of these traditional electro-mechanical boxes after an autumn and winter of disuse and expect everything to work, and indeed we found that to be the case today.

One of the track circuits was showing 'line occupied' which it was not. When track circuits fail they fail safe and give this indication. A work train had come up from Cheddleton on its way to a site further up the line to clear some vegetation, and because of this fault the interlocking in the box, thinking there was a train in the section, would not let me clear the up starter signal so I had to authorise the driver to pass it at danger.

Consall box on switching on this morning. Note the left hand block instrument with its black bar horizontal. This is T5 track circuit indicator showing 'Track Occupied'

A close-up of T5 track circuit indicator. After S&T changed its battery it showed a 'track clear' indication, which is correct when no trains are present on that section (which they weren't).

S&T fixed the faulty track circuit and set about checking all the functions in the box, and walking up the line to lubricate and check the signals and the points.

S&T staff working on damaged signal cables this morning. Note the marquees at the Black Lion pub, probably in readiness for their beer festival next weekend timed to coincide with our Steam Gala.

Lubricating the 'up' main starter signal.....

.....and the 'up' loop starter signal

A closer look at that 'up' loop starter being lubricated

Frank Richards' superb photo that I've named 'Sophie reflects'. Today's work train motive power, class 33 'Sophie', waits at Podmores as the crew tackle the line side vegetation.

Chief signal technician Emma maintaining the block instruments 

 Emma checks out the block instrument shelf while Dominic works on adjustments to signal lever 13, the 'up' main starter 

When the work train returned I put it into the loop initially. Note the rust on the rails of the loop, which has seen no trains since the box was last in use in early September.

Last job today was to check everything worked using a train. Class 33 'Sophie' on the work train returned and I put it into the loop while we briefed the driver. We were to send the train out of the station to the north, change the points and signals from 'loop' to 'main' line, clear the section interlocking, run the train back through the station north to south on the 'main' line, change the points and signals, clear the interlocking, then run the train back up from south to north via the 'loop' line again.

We did this three times. Then we did it another three times in the opposite direction. Initially one of the track circuits in the loop was not detecting the presence of the train because of the rust on the rails preventing the train from electrically shorting the rails to each other (which is how track circuits detect trains). After the first run it worked fine.

So all now appears to be working as it should in Consall box. Tomorrow I'm duty signal man for a 'single train' day where I'll run the train through the 'loop' in the 'up' direction, and through the 'main' in the 'down' direction.

Update, Sunday 21st February

S&T continued work at Consall today with lots of hi viz in the station yard, as I was working the 'box as rostered signalman.

S&T and PW guys in hi viz, station helper Guy in the purple jumper, station manager Les in the dark jacket

The Polish Tank now sports its 'Hotspur' name plates 

 The signal box relay cabinet being checked

Hotspur gets away from the 'up' platform with the Sunday Diner train past Consall's 'up' loop starter signal (doesn't that Kitchen Car look good?).

I was working the 'box today even though we were only running one train (forming the 'Sunday Diner' on one of its runs up and down the valley).
Using the 'box all train movements at Consall used the appropriate up or down platform, rather than all using the down platform as is the case when the 'box is switched out.

Next weekend is our Steam Gala. I'm rostered signalman both days. Let's hope the box behaves itself!



Thursday, 18 February 2016

A sunny train trip though the Peak District

Edale station in the Hope Valley, Derbyshire

A perk of being a volunteer passenger-counter with the Mid Cheshire Rail Users Association is a Northern Rail pass valid on any of that company's trains. It was cold but sunny today so I decided to travel one of the most scenic railway lines in the UK - the Hope Valley line through the Derbyshire Peak District.

 The Hope Valley Line enters the map at its left hand edge at Marple and leaves it at Dore on the right hand edge. In between is the magnificent scenery of the Derbyshire Peak District on the boundary between the White and the Dark Peaks.

 My journey began at Alderley Edge station this morning where I boarded a class 323 electric multiple unit train for Manchester Piccadilly. Alderley is on the Manchester to Crewe line which is usually a busy artery for Virgin's Pendolinos between Manchester and London, Arriva Wales services to South Wales, freight trains out of Trafford Park Container Terminal, and other services as well as the local stopping 323 units. Since Saturday, and until 24th of this month, no trains are operating south of Alderley because of essential engineering work on the Dane viaduct at Twemlow near Holmes Chapel.

A Northern Rail Sprinter unit in the Hope Valley, similar to the train I travelled on today

I had a short wait at Piccadilly before leaving on the Northern Rail stopping service to Sheffield via the Hope Valley. There used be an electrified main line between the two cities, the Woodhead Route. Electrified in 1955 at the then standard 1,500 volts DC system. Instead of converting it to the modern 25Kv AC system British Railways closed the line to passengers in 1970, and completely in 1981. Has any other country closed an electrified main line between two major cities? It certainly wouldn't happen on today's privatised railway, and yet some people call for rail re-nationalisation!

The remaining rail route between Manchester and Sheffield is the scenic Hope Valley line. It's not electrified, still has semaphore signalling, but is a busy and vital rail artery for passengers and freight. Most passenger services are 'fast' between Stockport and Sheffield; this is, they do not stop at any of the intermediate stations. East Midlands trains runs its service from Liverpool to Norwich via Manchester along the Hope Valley, hourly in each direction, and there are several Trans Pennine Express services from Manchester and Manchester Airport using the line each hour as well. There is also a lot of freight traffic, including stone trains originating at the quarries at Peak Forest and Buxton, and cement trains from Hope cement works.

The fast passenger trains from Manchester route to Stockport, then take the Buxton line as far as Hazel Grove where a chord opened in 1986 allows access to the Hope valley Line. The 'Northern Rail' train I used today is a 'stopper' in that it calls at almost all the stations on its route. Its route from Manchester is via Reddish North and Marple, joining the Hope Valley Line between New Mills and Chinley. Fast trains do the journey between the two cities in about 50 minutes. My train today took about 1 hour 20 minutes.

There are two particularly long tunnels on the line (Cowburn at 3,385m, and Totley which at 5.7 km is the second longest in UK after the Severn Tunnel, excepting the Channel Tunnel) and several shorter ones. The Northern Rail Sprinter DMU calls at 13 stations en route so it's a leisurely trip, but that allows more time to admire the scenery.

The first few miles as far as Romiley are urban, but from New Mills onwards we can enjoy views of the Debyshire Peak District. We enter Cowburn Tunnel in pleasant hilly coutryside and exit it in the true heart of the Peak in Edale. Even more marked, at the other end of the line, we enter Totley Tunnel at Grindleford in Peak country and exit at Dore in the outer suburbs of Sheffield.

In between is some of the finest scenery visible from a train in UK. The Hope Valley is on the border between the gritstones of the Dark Peak to the north and the limestones of the White Peak to the south and combines superb views of both.

Chinley Churn, Win Hill, Rushup Edge, Mam Tor, Bamford Edge are among the many hills, ridges, and Edges I have visited on strenuous walks around this area with Stockport Walkers. Today I enjoyed them from the comfort of the train.

Edale in the Hope Valley. The hill in the centre is Mam Tor, and the railway line runs along the valley floor, curving around the foot of Mam Tor towards Hope. Cowburn Tunnel where the railway enters this magnificent landscape is off the picture to the right.


Sunday, 14 February 2016

Last Urmston visit for at least three weeks

Another lovely sunny day, busy with fare paying passengers at the park but due to Jason's absence, probably no photographs were taken. Alfred's former owner, James, was there and he had a drive of my engine, declaring it as good and as fun to drive as ever. He even drove Alfred 'prone' lying on the carriage which I later tried - it's different; you get a better view of the water level in the gauge glass, the state of the fire, and the steam pressure gauge, but you can't see ahead so well.

Still got problems with the right hand injector. May try replacing it, and possibly the troublesome clack valve as well.

Some cold weather forecast for the next few nights, so I've removed Alfred's steam pressure gauge which I'll keep in the house. There's always condensed steam (water) in the pressure gauge of a cold steam locomotive, and if it freezes it wrecks the gauge.

There'll be no more visits to Urmston for at least three weeks as the next two weekends I'm duty signalman in Consall 'box on the Churnet Valley Railway. Next weekend we are testing the 'box, and the following weekend is our Steam Gala, last weekend of the month. Do come if you can - visitors to the 'box welcome as long as I'm not too busy, and no more than a few at a time (there's not much room)!


Sunday, 7 February 2016

Back at Urmston today after three missed Sundays

We've missed three consecutive Sundays at Urmston & District Model Engineers' track, two because the weather was awful, and one because I attended the annual lunch of a walking club. But today the sun shone (until mid afternoon, when there were showers) and I took Alfred out for a run.

All pictures by and copyright of Jason Lau. Please click on any one for a larger image.

Alfred on his usual prep bay this morning

Billy with his 5" gauge 'Polly' tank engine 

Evidence of recent very wet weather

The fine weather brings out the crowds for train rides

 How many people can you fit in a Southern 'Atlantic' tender?

The 4-4-0' s owner / driver

A couple of visitors from North Leicestershire want to know a bit about Alfred   

Wave to the camera

Malc wasn't with me today and probably won't be for a few weeks as last Tuesday he underwent a hip replacement operation. He has made a compressed air operated blower for use in lighting up Alfred (all the prep bays have air and water on tap) and today I tried it for the first time. It worked a treat! It replaces the electric blower and battery we have been using to date and saves carting that heavy car battery around with us.

Alfred ran well today for over three hours continuously. There's still a problem with the right hand injector, though. I'll have another look at that clack valve.

Let's hope it's not too long before Malc is back at the controls of Alfred.


Friday, 5 February 2016

A visit to the Barclays Bank archive to meet an old acquaintance.

No, not the lady in the picture below; the machine she is leaning on.

A Burroughs TC500 minicomputer publicity shot from the late 1960s

I consider myself lucky to have started my IT career about the time IT 'took off', and I grew with it. I'd joined a bank on leaving school but almost immediately knew that boring environment wasn't for me, and after talking to some Burroughs computer engineers who were installing equipment in the bank I answered an advert by Burroughs for trainee Field Engineers. After a rigorous selection process initially at the Midland Hotel and then at Burroughs Manchester offices I was one of a few of probably over a hundred applicants offered a job and joined the Burroughs Manchester office, assigned to the Banking division in view of my previous job. After initial training I found myself fixing mechanical accounting machines at banks in the city and I wondered if I'd made the right move. But something I didn’t know about was happening which would put my career on the track it was to follow for the rest of my working life.

Barclays, Nat West, and Midland banks had recently placed massive orders with Burroughs for terminal computers to be installed in every branch of those banks, and I was to be trained on this new machine, the TC500.

To put this in context, it was 1970 and few people knew what a computer was back then. They had vague ideas of electronic brains in large air conditioned rooms, costing a fortune and attended by propeller-head boffins in white coats. But through sheer luck, I was in the right place at the right time. The computer revolution was about to take off, and I had a front row seat.

I got to know Southend quite well over the following months as I attended a series of courses on basic computing, data communications, and the TC500 itself at the Burroughs training centre. The TC500 was one of the first office mini-computers, the size of a large desk. It had a full length mechanical keyboard built into the front of the desk, and a golf-ball print head traversing up and down a platen about four feet long on the top of the machine. There was a mechanical paper tape reader for loading programmes, and inside the cases was a rack of printed circuit boards with RTL chips (Resistor Transistor Logic, the forerunner of the later TTL, Transistor Transistor Logic) chips and a head-per-track fixed hard disc spinning at six thousand RPM which not only stored the programmes, but also acted as the machine’s working memory.

The golf-ball print head mounted on its carriage, showing the lead screw shaft which when rotated caused the print carriage to traverse left and right 

To bring the machine to life one pressed the start button and the disc started to spin up, with an ever rising whine like an airliner jet engine starting. After thirty seconds the disc was up to speed and almost inaudible and the TC500 ‘initialised’; that is, the gong sounded, all the indicator lights came on, the golf ball print head slowly traversed to the right hand end of the platen until it hit the end stop, then whizzed quickly back to the left, counting in about half a second the three hundred or so character spaces which would bring it to rest at the left hand end of the platen. The indicator lights extinguished except for those over the four programme select keys, and the machine was ready for use.

The TC500 could operate as a stand alone small office computer, but in the configuration ordered by the UK banks a TC500 in each bank branch was linked to a mainframe IBM 360 computer in the banks’ computer centre. That is why we were trained in data communications. The link comprised a dedicated 4-wire telephone line from a modem in the bank branch to one in the computer centre with a standby 2-wire dial-up link for use if the main link failed. 4-wire line speed was 1,200 bits per second, reducing to 300 BPS for the 2-wire standby link. Amazing to compare that to today’s home broadband (over copper pair, not fibre) giving, say, 8 Megabits per second, or 8,000,000 bits per second. That’s well over six and a half thousand times faster than that dedicated 4-wire link, twenty seven thousand times faster than the 2-wire link of 1970. So today’s broadband speeds come to us over the same 2-wire phone line we used in 1970, but twenty seven thousand times faster.

And those modems – back then they comprised grey tin boxes about eighteen inches square by eight inches deep, with ‘GPO’ enamel badges on them. Today modems have been replaced by modem/routers, but the last modem I saw for use in a laptop PC was smaller than a credit card.

The protocol used over the link between bank branch and computer centre was Burroughs poll – select. The operator in the bank branch would input data on the TC500 in the form of debits and credits to accounts, or request data such as account balances. The central computer would poll round each of many hundreds of TC500s every few seconds to see if there was any data to transfer. If there was, the TC500 would be ‘selected’ by the mainframe, and the data transfer would take place.

TC500s in a bank branch. These two machines are 'concatinated', in that they share a common modem and data link. The GPO modem is the large box on the stand between the two machines.

I became a Field Engineering Group Leader in charge of a team of engineers, and while they looked after machines in the Manchester and Cheshire bank branches I supported them but spent a lot of my time at Barclay's Bank computer centre in Wythenshawe, and later at the Barclays management centre at Radbroke Hall near Knutsford. I and a few of my senior engineers were trained on later and more complex Burroughs computers which Barclays would evaluate at Radbroke Hall.

I stayed with Burroughs for several years before going to DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) exchanging hexadecimal machine code for octal. DEC which was an amazing company to work for at the end of the '70s, like latching on to a rocket set fair to topple IBM from its no.1 slot in the industry. But by 1980 micro processor based computer circuitry was starting to de-skill the role of computer engineer and I decided on a change in career direction. I left DEC and joined SPL (Systems Programming Ltd) as a project engineer, progressing to Project leader and technical sales support in manufacturing and  process control systems. Through a series of take overs SPL was eventually absorbed into what became EDS (Electronic Data Systems) from where I retired in 2008 as a Solutions Architect on multi-million pound bids into large corporate clients such as Rolls Royce Aero Engines, and public sector departments such as Inland Revenue and DWP. But it had all started with the humble TC500 in the early '70s.

Through Facebook I joined the Barclays Bank Wythenshawe Computer Centre page for old time's sake, and discovered that Barclays have an archive in Wythenshawe (the computer centre having closed a long time ago), and in the archive is a TC500! I hadn't seen one since about 1979 and had assumed they all long been scrapped, so I made arrangements to go and see this first step in my IT career.

Possibly the last remaining TC500 in the Barclays Bank archive this morning

This morning the keeper of the archive, Maria, welcomed me and showed me to the machine and allowed me to take photographs. It certainly brought back memories to come face to face again with this relic of the early 1970s; the first stepping stone in my IT career.

A close up of the print carriage and lead screw. The golf ball head had (if I remember correctly) four positions of tilt and sixteen of rotate, to present the required character to the paper. The shaft to the left of the lead screw is the print shaft; once the golf ball had bee tilted and rotated to the correct character position, a dog clutch engaged and rotated the print shaft one revolution which caused the print head to be thrown against the paper and platen, to print the character. This forward movement also engaged mechanical detents to hold the golf ball accurately in position. To print the next character the lead screw rotated fractionally to move to the next character position, and the process repeated. The lead screw was also detented for each character print. Amazingly, the print speed was twenty characters per second!

The narrow metal tapes visible to the right of the lead screw are what positioned the golf ball in rotate and tilt. These are driven by the 'decoder', a set of electrically-actuated clutches running in an oil bath and operating tilt and rotate arms with pulleys on them that the tapes run round. The single tape to the right of the print shaft selects black or red ribbon, and is also driven by the decoder. The electrical inputs to the decoder clutches came from the machine's electronic print drive system. The decoder was the TC500's Achilles heel, suffering a high failure rate. We became expert at changing them for replacement units! 

A rear view, showing the two multi-pin sockets at the left. The left hand one of these was for the modem cable, the right hand one for the concatination cable if a second TC500 was connected to the modem. 

Barclays Wythenshawe computer centre as I remember it. Note the 'arrow slit' windows to make life easy for the air conditioning, and the SELNEC bus!

A scene at the opening ceremony of Barclay's Wythenshawe Computer Centre in 1971, with the 'arrow slit' windows in the background. As officialdom looks on probably understanding little of the then leading edge technology, an operator demonstrates a TC500. The enormous grey GPO modem occupies the side table.