Inside New Street Signal Box

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I Choose Birmingham is having its hair cut. Not all of us at once, that would be odd, but the guy writing this. Our hairdresser is asking what we've done today and we tell him we've been inside New Street Signal Box. He has no idea what that is. We show him the above picture and he immediately recognises it. "Oh that place, by the red cage. What the hell do they do in there?" Well, it's an interesting story actually.

Built in 1965 it's Grade II listed meaning theoretically it doesn't need to fear Birmingham's most demolition-happy of wrecking balls, although anti-Brutalists would like to see it razed. Inside they control the movement of trains spanning the city from Wolverhampton to Coventry. Pivotally, they control the comings and goings of locomotives at New Street Station. "Did you see the BBC's programme about the infrastructure of New York?" asks John Korbes, Local Operations Manager. "Grand Central Terminal handles 1,100 trains a day. So do we. But we only have 12 platforms to do it on." Let the record show that Grand Central Terminal has 44.

Listed inside and out even the floor tiles can't be touched. And when the team are moved to a significantly more modern set-up in Saltley, in four years, the building will be decommissioned. "Maybe it'll be turned into luxury apartments," says John with a wry chuckle. "Maybe a museum." One entire floor is just a sea of "Westpacks", 60s made technology that control a signal, or a set of points, or a route. It's full of thousands of clicking, whirring parts and switches. It's a steampunk's dream.

The level is kept at a constant temperature so that humidity doesn't effect the ageing technology. "It still does the job," says John. "If something breaks, though, it's a very specialist job to get it repaired. Costly. When they closed Wolverhampton signal box we pilfered all the parts for here. There's no diagnostics, you see. If something goes wrong, we can't just plug a laptop in to tell us what. We've got to search."

Mission Control, which is absolutely not the correct name for it, sits at the top of the building. If you assumed the roofed section was some sort of vantage point, like a locomotive 'air traffic control', you'd be as wrong as us. Those controlling one of the UK's busiest signalling regions do so looking at a 20 metre display of flashing lights and moving numbers. It's mind-boggling in both its complexity and simpleness. The mugs across the top represent retirements. When you work your last day, you leave your favourite mug behind. It's been 50 years. There's a lot of mugs.

The green digital numbers are trains and the white lights are clear routes on which they're headed. The red lights show routes that aren't clear. Amazingly the team — under a close, watchful eye — allow us to pull and press the buttons that control all movement in one sector. This is boyhood bucket list stuff. Before we go we ask what the big sign that simply says "26 years" means. It's updated annually and is a constant reminder to the one Liverpool fan of how long it's been since his team won English football's top flight. He has to stare at it all day, every day. We can still hear them all chuckling about it as we leave. More pics

Images: bytombird.com

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