The ticking clock of the modern world has finally blown the whistle on Scotland’s only cycling railway signallers, as part of a package of improvements to be made to the Inverness to Aberdeen railway line. Railtrack Scotland zone director Janette Anderson announced the proposed changes in a speech on Scottish rail infrastructure at Robert Gordon’s University in Aberdeen on Friday. The £2m investment, which is expected to reduce journey times by 10 ½ minutes by the year 2000, will involve the installation of new signalling on the line, which will put an end to the “Nairn Bike”, and the sight of signallers cycling from one end of Nairn station to the other to operate the points.
Making reference to continued local pressure to upgrade the line, which has been described as the worst in Britain, Ms Anderson said “The £2 million investment is in addition to measures already announced and £3 million worth of track improvements already under way.”
Nairn station has one of the passing loops on the mainly single track Inverness to Aberdeen line. The points and signals are operated by a staff of five signallers, one of whom is grandmother Isabel Johnstone, 50, Britain’s only female cycling signaller. She said “It’s a lovely job in summer when it’s light and warm, but it’s not so much fun in the winter. It’s very hard to leave a snug warm signal box with a coal fire glowing to go out on a bike in the cold and dark of a winter’s night. Sometimes we even have to clear the snow from the platform so that we can get to the other signal box.”
“The station here is very long, and the signal boxes at either end are a quarter of a mile apart. Using the bike allows us to get from one to the other reasonably quickly,” she explained. With an average of twenty-seven trains a day, Nairn’s signallers cycle the same number of miles between the signal boxes. Whenever a train comes in, the signaller on duty has to cycle to each end of the station twice, once when the train arrives and once when it sets off again, to change the signals and the points.
When trains from Inverness and Aberdeen arrive at the same time the job is doubled, and the signallers have to run to and fro across the footbridge to exchange the “tokens”- safety devices which ensure that only one train at a time can be on a section of line- with the engine drivers. “Oh, it keeps you fit all right,” said Isabel. “In fact, I’m going on a 100 mile sponsored walk in the Himalayas next month.”
Being one of Scotland’s elite band of cycling signallers is a job that requires specific skills. Interviewees for the job have until now been asked “if they could go a bike,” and whether they were afraid of the dark. In addition to the dangers presented by the unforgiving weather of the Moray coast and the hazards of cycling along an unlit track in darkness, they have had to face the threat from local seagulls, which often mob them, especially at night.
“Mind, the biggest problem I had when I started was that all the other signallers were great big men and the bike was a 22-inch gents’ cycle. I’m very petite, so British Rail, who operated the station at that time, got me a ladies’ mountain bike,” said Isabel. “I’ve only fallen off the once in the time I’ve been here.”
Over the years the Nairn Bike has become a landmark for rail users. “The regular travellers all know me and say hello. But then, I stand out a bit, rushing up and down the platform on the bike with my orange vest on. It’s funny when the steam excursions come through and the tourists sit in the carriages drinking their glasses of champagne peering out at us. I suppose they think it’s very quaint,” Isabel added.
As for the future, Isabel is sad to see the end of a railway tradition that has its roots in the last century. “I’m not sure I’ll enjoy being in a signal box all day,” she said, “I prefer to be out and about. But times move on, don’t they? After all, there used to be five men doing the job I do on my own now, when the station was really busy. It’s progress.”
Nowhere else in the Scottish railway network are cycles used by signallers today, though at one time it was common practice at Highland Line stations, which are often very long. The weight of the linkages used to change the signals and points means that the signal boxes have to be near to the junctions, and are thus far apart.
Railway historian Roy Hamilton, of the Strathmore Steam Railway at Boat of Garten explained, “The Nairn Bike is unique now, but in the old days, signallers in the Highland network often used bikes to speed up the job. However, this was frowned upon by the railway company, who preferred the signallers to walk. But the men just used the bikes they’d come to work on anyway. Indeed, it’s only ten years or so since British Rail began supplying the bike at Nairn—before that the signallers used their own.”
“From a novelty angle it’s a shame to see it go, but from the point of view of the signallers, it must be better to sit in front of a bank of switches that control the points than rushing up and down the platform in all weathers,” he added.
No final decision has been made as to the type of system that will replace the Nairn Bike, according to Derek Holmes, of Railtrack Scotland. “The whole situation at Nairn is under review at the moment,” he said. “We are considering a number of options for upgrading the signalling, which include a relay interlocked into Inverness, or relocating the signal controls to the passenger waiting room in the main station building.”
Copyright Rod Fleming 1998
First Published in Scotland On Sunday