Open House at Loughton Station

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 21 September 2004

This weekend was Open House in London, and I booked to go on a tour of Loughton Station on Sunday morning. The present station at Loughton is the third to serve the area, and was built in the late 1930s at a time when the Underground was taking over what had been an overground suburban railway - so it is unique in mixing the architectural and functional styles of the two.

The station front at Loughton    Platforms at Loughton Station

The tour was well-run, and we were lucky to be in a small group which meant we probably got more attention than many other people traipsing through the station did over the weekend.

Of interest to me was the fact that London Underground and the London Transport Museum go to great lengths to preserve original fixtures and fittings in situ wherever possible. Sadly this doesn't always work out for them. Loughton had the last remaining example of a glass replacement sign that had been installed during the second world war (because glass was cheaper and/or more plentiful than the material they would otherwise have used). Or rather it used to, until it was stolen a couple of years. They also face increasing issues with the Disability Discrimination Act, which means some original fixtures and fittings like platform benches need either modification or replacement.

We got to go into the operations room, which housed the emergency signal panel. As Loughton has sidings it has the ability to take local control of traffic if necessary. It was one area where I didn't take photographs, although a couple of people in the group did. As I tried to explain later to my wife, if someone was doing a tour of BBC New Media and they got to my desk and it was explained to them what I did in my job, I would be pretty astonished if they then started taking photographs of my desk and laptop.

The highlight of the tour was gaining access to the disused signal cabin that lies next to the tracks a few metres Westbound from the platforms. And here I did take lots of pictures. The Central Line is now controlled by artificially intelligent robot entities* based in Wood Lane, and the Loughton set of signal controls was decommissioned in the early nineties. It was a wonderful example of fitness-to-purpose of engineering - track safety was automatically maintained by the complex interlocking of components that prevented unsafe routes being set.

Disused signalling equipment at Loughton Station    The steps outside the disused signal cabin at Loughton Station    Indicator panel in the disused signal cabin at Loughton Station

Not only had the museum preserved the works of the building, but they had preserved the accompanying documentation, which included the daily logs written by the signal cabin staff. This was an example of the best type of historical documentation - the stuff nobody thought anybody would ever read again outside of a close-knit circle - the pen and paper equivalent of the incriminating email. Choice entries we saw included:

Another day sat here drinking tea and doing fuck all

and the common practice of leaving messages to colleagues like:

And Bob says "bollocks short arse"

We also got to go down into the actual electrical gubbins of the signal box, which is housed in the downstairs of the building. The best moment of the tour was when one of our party, a young American, asked the London Underground engineer with us "What does this switch do?", pointing to a massively ornate trip switch mounted on a wooden panel on the wall. "That wakes up Frankenstein" came the beautifully dead-pan reply.

Electrical equipment in the disused signal cabin at Loughton Station    Electrical equipment in the disused signal cabin at Loughton Station    Electrical equipment in the disused signal cabin at Loughton Station

It sounds like my Open House experience was a more profitable day than Kim's, and a less queue-some one than eyedropper had



*Actual control may not be by artificially intelligent robot entities.

1 Comment

I'm so upset that this was run on one weekend only - my son was with his father, who not only wouldn't let me have him for the day to take him out, but wouldn't take him himself. I hope that they do another one reasonably soon. With better advertising! I didn't know anything about it until about two days before. Glad someone enjoyed it!

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