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A signal injury

To date, signalling is one area of railway work that hasn’t featured prominently in these cases taken from the Project spreadsheet. Signalling was of course vital to keeping trains safe and ensuring the efficient operation of the system. But behind it lay people – and those people were exposed to a variety of dangers.

One case involving signal workers took place at Shields Junction (in Glasgow) on the Glasgow and Paisley Joint Railway, on 29 July 1911. There signal fitter Edward McDade was, with a colleague, renewing a length of signal wire alongside some empty sidings. About 15 minutes after they started work, a goods train was ‘loose shunted’ into one of the sidings – so, the loco pushed the wagons into the siding, but uncoupled and let the wagons continue moving under their own momentum. This meant that although moving at low speed, they were also very quiet.

The signal fitters didn’t notice the wagons approaching. The Inspector, JH Armytage, noted in his report: ‘McDade, who was joining the old signal wire to the new one, was knocked down, one waggon wheel passing over his right foot, which has since been amputated.’ Armytage’s conclusion was (perhaps predictably) that ‘both McDade and [the other fitter] failed to keep a proper look-out for their safety’ (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

Page from 1932 Prevention of Accidents to Signal & Telegraph Workers booklet – relating to an issue similar to the case discussed here.

Trackside might not immediately come to mind when we think of signalling – we probably think of the worker in the signal box, but ‘S&T’ (‘signal and telegraph’) tasks were broad, and took workers to a variety of places. Most of the 93 cases relating to signalling staff in the spreadsheet were in some way a result of working on and around the railway lines – oiling points, lighting or extinguishing signal lamps, or undertaking routine maintenance.

Another of the things the spreadsheet helps us to see is the huge range of jobs and positions needed to keep the railway system operating, including in areas like signalling. This may simply be that the different railway companies had different names for what were essentially the same roles. However, I suspect it is more than this, with many of the jobs having quite specific titles and meanings. Searching by ‘signal’ under the ‘grade’ column brings up 27 apparently distinct jobs, including some intriguing variations: from the straightforward ‘signalman’, via the ‘signal connector’ to the ‘signal fitter’s cleaner.’ How did the duties of the ‘summer signal lad’ differ from those of the ‘learner signal lad’? And heaven help those of us who might confuse the wonderfully-named ‘electric signal lineman’ with the ‘assistant signal lineman’, or even the ‘under signal lineman’!

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