DSC 0558fi - Coffee Pot Tales #1

Coffee Pot Tales #1

A new series on London Underground’s coffee pot signals! We shall look at each station that still has these century old signals still in service, plus a bit of history and background to each signal and coffee pots in general. At the time of writing, these signals will be in service for perhaps a couple or so more years before being replaced by the most modern up to date signals.

We often think of the whole tube as having up to date equipment, and considerably up to date trains (bar the Bakerloo’s and Piccadilly’s which will solder on for another five-ten years or so!) However, there’s signal boxes from the 1920s still in use (to be decommissioned fairly soon), there’s the odd bit of equipment that dates back much the same amount of time and several of the lines – such as the Piccadilly – have signals that do look fairly modern but in fact date back as far as the thirties.

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Front cover of TfL publicity for the 4LM scheme

Coffee pot signals are of course currently part of this unique set up of equipment that works, but are sadly ancient technology. They are nice signals (despite one or two being quite uncared for) I love the fact these are still working but they shouldn’t be there. They’re still in use because of various reasons such as senior management issues/failed contracts with outside companies. These signals should have been replaced perhaps ten years ago under the first contract, and 2018 under the second contract as part of the Sub-Surface Upgrade Programme (SSUP) or as Thales/TfL apparently now prefer to call it, the Four Lines Modernisation (4LM.) The big problem at the start had been the PPP followed by the Bombardier debacle. As the GLA put it, TfL ‘grossly mismanaged its signalling contract.’

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The 4LM scheme as described in Rail Engineer

The problems began in 2004 when the contracts for Metronet and Westinghouse failed. As part of the much maligned PPP these two companies were responsible for installing two completely different yet incompatible signal systems on the Metropolitan and Jubilee Lines between Finchley Road and Wembley Park. This caused huge setbacks and the fall out ensured it would be quite a few years before any further attempts would be made to tackle the sub-surface lines’ signalling systems. Instead of a piece by piece attempt as per PPP, it was ultimately decided to do the entire sub-surface system in one go.

In 2011 Bombardier won the contract for the Circle, District, Hammersmith and Metropolitan Lines’ SSUP.  However another huge set back occurred. Little progress was apparently made. Bombardier’s contract was terminated at the end of 2013. TfL deemed the company was not coping with the complex nature of London Underground’s signalling. By now three lots of companies had failed to meet the needs required to upgrade London’s underground signal systems. A detailed investigation of the debacles was conducted by the GLA – Transport for London’s Signal Failure – and they put the blame at TfL’s door.

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GLA’s damning report on the SSUP failures (March 2016)

Thales was awarded the latest contract in August 2015 and so far it is progressing well with a hope the new system will be working on most of the the sub-surfaces lines by 2020/1. A substantial part of that will introduce Seltrac CTBC, or automatic train control in 2022/3. This has already been tested successfully on a short section of the Circle/Hammersmith Lines from the western terminus to Latimer Road in late September/early October 2017 and overseen by the new Hammersmith Service Control Centre.

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Baker Street’s coffee pot signal sits right underneath the structure which carries the Wonderpass

Having dispensed with the background to the reasons why London Underground’s coffee pot signals have survived so long, we go to the first coffee pot signal in this series which is at Baker Street. This world famous station is quite an unusual corner on the entire underground system. Its just celebrated its 155th anniversary. It has adverts from Metropolitan Railway days,  a substantial part of the oldest underground railway station in the world still more or less as it was built, huge archways announcing the services to Wembley, Harrow, Uxbridge, Watford & Amersham/King’s Cross, Liverpool St, Moorgate & Whitechapel, a war time memorial, shop fronts from the 1920s (W.H.Smith, Luncheon & tea rooms etc) and so on. Alas the station’s one coffee pot signal is extremely overlooked in the midst of this celebrated historical paraphernalia.

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Plenty of the old stuff at Baker Street station! This is the grand arch or gateway to/from Metroland

There isn’t a lot to say about that signal actually. I have no idea when it was installed. Curiously its a recent installation. Older pictures of the platforms in the 1980s do not show a coffee pot signal at the location the current one is sited. When the C69 stock was converted to one person operation a few of the platform repeaters were considered superfluous and some were decommissioned. This very old signal was put here possibly around the time Baker Street station’s 1853 platforms were restored to their original look and its clearly a clean installation compared to the other examples on the same line. Its probably here because it had history and fitted in with the 1863 environment so much more nicely than a modern signal!

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Easy to find the coffee pot signal. Its right under Platform six’s number!

Ironically this coffee pot signal’s somewhat more important these days! Its useful in terms of the the S7 tube stock, which has different alighting and boarding patterns compared to the older trains, with most passengers coming through the rear two doors of the front carriage and the resulting melee at the far end of platform six therefore quite likely to be obscuring the platform dispatcher’s sightline to the newer starter signal by the tunnel portal.

Its a unique signal compared to the others on the Circle/Hammersmith/Met lines, definitely not the same. The beauty of these coffee pot signals is they were so easy to make. Though they were mass produced by Westinghouse for both the tube and main line railway companies they too could be made in a railway’s own workshop by using steel pipes and cutting holes for the lenses or bending steel plates to make a cylinder – or going as far as modding the Westinghouse versions to suit individual locations. I think the Baker Street signal is a cobbled version using both homemade and industrial parts. I’ll be looking at this aspect more in depth in the other installments in this series.

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