Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 4.djvu/601

This page has been validated.

steadiness, and application to work must be demanded of the men who look after the signals and points at the branch lines, junctions, and sidings. Take the Great Western line of England, for instance, with its 1,387 miles of road. Besides its own system, it falls in with the principal systems of the Bristol and Exeter, South Devon, North Wales, and ever so many more minor systems for the traffic of which it has in a measure, of course, to provide as well as for its own. Over all these lines trains are traveling daily at express speed, their ultimate destination being London. Now, express speed in England means an average rate of 47¾ miles an hour, a pace which is probably greater by ten miles than that attained on any other railroads in the world. Indeed, on the Great Western and Great Northern lines even this rate of traveling is exceeded. On the first-mentioned system a train runs 77¼ miles (from London to Swindon) without stopping, in 87 minutes, giving a uniform pace of 53¼ miles an hour: on the Great Northern a train completes the journey from London to Peterborough (76¼ miles) in 90 minutes. Just one little error on the part of the signal man, one omission to adjust the points on the part of his mate, and down swoops the express on to the wrong line, and the result is an appalling catastrophe such as happened at Wigan the other day.

In the above little sum, which I suggested to be worked out, I mentioned that about 800 trains passed through Clapham Junction regularly every day. You take your stand upon the platform. Whish-h-h—Bang—Rattle a train has passed you. Take out your watch, mark the second-hand going round, and before it gets to 60—Whish-h-h—Bang—Plunge—a second train has rushed out into the open, to catch the first one up. But it can't. The line is blocked by the sharp-sighted man in the signal-box yonder, who has no fear even if a train per minute were to work through. He has nothing to do with time. His duties are to maintain a certain and invariable interval of space between two trains, and he does it. How does he do it? If the reader will be good enough to follow me into the signal-box, he shall see.

Not much of a place certainly. On the whole rather like a second-rate sea-shore shanty, stuck upon four posts, so placed it seems that every train going into the station, and every train coming out from it, shall rush full tilt against the box and smash it and its occupants to atoms. In reality, the signal-box is so situated to command for a certain distance a full view of one line just where it joins to another. Interiorly our box is not unlike an unfurnished private box at a theatre, into which some of the machinist's properties have been put by mistake. Regarding a printed notice on the wall that strangers are particularly requested not to distract the attention of the signal-man from his duties, we take a look round, and the general impression to be got from a cursory glance is that it must be rather jolly to be a signal-man. Every thing looks so clean and neat; there is plenty of excitement to be had in watching the trains from the win-