Monday, April 09, 2007

The end of the line

I recently visited Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, where my father was born and where I spent many holidays in my youth (1950s to you). I had come back to chase up some leads in my current pursuit of my family history.

On my way back from the graveyard the road passed under a railway bridge. As I approached the bridge, I looked up towards the railway line and, to my amazement, there were the old semaphore signals still by the side of the track. They certainly didn't look abandoned; one was set to open and the other to closed.

They brought back memories of when my father, who worked for the national railway company, used to bring me to the station and get me into the signal box where I spent many an hour in the company of the signalman. Of course there were more trains then. There are now only three passenger trains a day and the odd timber goods train.

Anyway, I wondered what might have remained of the old signalbox and all its solid victorian mechanical and electro-mechanical machinery. So I trekked up the slope to the station and went to the ticket office. Fortunately this was manned (literally) as there was a train due for Dublin.

I asked the man if he would mind me going onto the platform to take a few photos for old times sake.

"You're welcome."

"Is the old signal box still around? I used to spend time in it in the 1950s when I was down here with my father."

"It is."

"I saw the old signals down the track. I suppose they're not in use any longer."

"They are, but only for the next week. After that we will be going over to lights signalling controlled from Athlone"

"You mean the old levers which controlled the points and the signals, and that I was allowed to operate in the 1950s, have been in use all this time?"

"They have, indeed."

"And the old staff system?"


Well I must confess I was absolutely flabbergasted. The control system, installed when the railway first came, was still in use, and apparently functioning satisfactorily.

Unfortunately, there was nobody around to let me into the signal box which would not be open until much later in the day, but I was welcome to take what photos I liked including of the interior of the signal box, but only through the window.

What he told me confirmed that the line was still single track which doubled at the station to serve as a passing point.

I should explain what the staff system was. It was an ingenious way of locking a single track section so that it could be occupied by only one train at a time. Don't forget that with a single track you could, otherwise, have two trains approaching each other, at speed, from opposite directions.

The system operated through two interconnected devices at either end of the single track section. Each device had a bank of staffs, which were like small metal batons, and only one staff could be out out of the combined bank of staffs at any one time. When you took a staff out of one device, the system locked until the staff was returned to the device at the other end of the section. A driver could not enter a section unless he had a staff in his possession. A perfect system, with a built in failsafe factor (eg should the electricity go down), provided, of course, you left out the human factor.

In the old days this staff system operated all over the country, everywhere there was a single track line. As an aside, the man explained to me that the Ballyhaunis station (terminal to you) was one of only two in the country that could be switched in and out of the system. This depended on whether more than one train at a time was scheduled to occupy the track between Claremorris and Castlerea. If they were, Ballyhaunis was switched in and provided a passing point for what the system recognised as two separate single tracksections (Claremorris-Ballyhaunis and Ballyhaunis-Castlerea). Otherwise, it operated as a single section between Claremorris and Castlerea.

And all this elegant control system would be obsolete in a week's time. It was very sad. The passing of an era. From electro-mechanical to electronic, and from local to regional control.

You can see a more sophisticated explanation of the "old" system here.

I hope that someone will see to it that the relics of the old system are preserved somewhere, if this is not already the case. It would be a shame if future generations were denied the opportunity to view this elegant and robust security system in all its glory.


  1. Great photos.


  2. Nice article. Just one small correction. Your memory has deceived you slightly, the adjacent station is Castlerea, Loughrea was the terminus of the now defunct branch line from Attymon Junction between Athlone and Galway. This branch has been long closed, although Attymon is still a halt served by some Galway trains.

  3. Thanks, anonymous. Just saw your comment. Glad you liked the piece. I have substituted Castlerea for Loughrea. My fault for misremembering what the guy said and for not checking it out before publishing.

    Míle buíochas.

  4. Technical details of the upgrade are available at the IRRS site, referenced below:

    Mayo Line Modernisation
    Operations Schemes Development Manager,
    Irish Rail.

    [16 April 2007]
    "At 17:00 Ballyhaunis cabin switched out for the final time. This was the last IÉ signal cabin to regularly use ETS switching out apparatus, the facility at Gorey being rarely used these days."

  5. Wonderful. A bit like the locks on aircraft ailerons, elevators and rudder. These are mechanical devices, with long red ribbons attached, which prevent control surfaces from being blown about and damaged by the wind when aircraft are on the ground.

    No pilot would ever take off without having the full set of locks with him in the cockpit.