Published: 1st December 2015
It was designed to house 126 levers, but never topped 100 in its 110 year history, but today the Princes Risborough North Signal Box, (PNRSB) thought to be the largest surviving Great Western Railway signalbox, has been formally re-opened. This follows over 100 weekends’ work by Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway (CPRR) volunteers.
The PRNSB was made redundant 25 years ago after Network Southeast revitalised the Marylebone to Banbury route with new trains and signalling after closure threats in the 1980s. The signal box was declared a listed building given its prominence controlling railways to all points of the compass radiating from Princes Risborough.
In the years following the route modernisation, volunteers were allowed access to the building enabling them to repair and protect it but when Railtrack came into being, their more stringent safety system meant it was impossible to allow volunteers access due to the beaurocratic unworkable rules.
Then Network Rail (NR) took over the railways in 2002 and a more enlightened approach by that company enabled volunteer access to resume. This was just in time as years of neglect had taken its toll on the fabric of the building and Chinnor’s volunteers quickly got to work but within weeks a different part of NR rescinded access.
Fortunately the volunteers had propped up the roof in one corner which was being supported by a window frame as the supporting timber had failed. Had this brief volunteer access not taken place the roof would have caved in bringing the demolition of the signalbox on safety grounds as it is alongside a 100mph main line.
The next decade saw the signalbox slowly deteriorate and it was only a bout of vandalism in 2011 that brought about more volunteer access when Police asked them to assess the deliberate damage. This was found to be minimal compared to the effects of a decade of no maintenance and then with the operation of special trains, the first through services for 50 years between Aylesbury, Princes Risborough and Chinnor in October 2013 volunteer access was restored.
This was made possible after staff changes in Network Rail re-establishing relationships with the preserved railway and the provision of a safe walking route from the platform to the signal box.
Following the 100 weekends of working parties, work progressed so well that the CPRR felt able to invite their President Sir William McAlpine accepting an invitation to open the new staircase to the Signbalbox on November 27.
He was accompanied by senior Network Rail and Chiltern Railways’ staff and most of The Railway Heritage Trust top team. The visitors were astounded by the progress made and noted that this had been made without any grant-aid.
Princes Risborough North Box (PNRB) controlled railways to every point of the compass, west to Chinnor, Thame and Oxford, east to Aylesbury and Quainton, south to London and north to Bicester and Banbury.
The signal box was fitted with a massive frame capable of housing 126 signal and point levers. It never quite managed 100 operational levers at any one time and today has about 95 levers and a complicated signalling area plan above them.
The signal box was collapsing, about 200 of its windows had been smashed and subsequently boarded up, the access staircase rotted and removed and the roof started to lean and cracks in the brickwork appeared as the mortar failed.
This in turn allowed pigeons to move in creating a serious health hazard. All this has been dealt with plus water ingress stopped by Chinnor’s volunteers in their 100 weekends of work. The fabric of the signal box has been restored using steel ties to stabilise brickwork, rotted structural timbers replaced and failed mortar work repaired, including a collapsed window brick arch. The ‘deck’ that the teams of signalman worked on now has daylight, sliding windows, as designed 110 years ago, mains water and electricity but no more pigeons and most importantly, a working kettle!
The windows now allow fabulous views of the busy Chiltern mainline and the branchlines to Chinnor and Aylesbury. Once negotiations have been concluded with Network Rail, regular steam services running past PNRB to and from Chinnor will add to the vista. These negotiations are well advanced and due process via the Office of Rail and Road produced no Objections so the next step is an access agreement with NR which should produce steam trains serving Princes Risborough on a regular basis in the not too distant future.
The Chinnor and Princes Railway was delighted that its President, Sir William McAlpine was able to formally open the staircase at the signalbox watched by Network Rail and Chiltern Railways’ teams plus senior members of The Railway Heritage Trust
Sir William said: “I am delighted to have been asked to open the historic signal box 110 years after it was first commissioned and look forward to making more visits to the steam hauled line when regular running commences from Princes Risborough to Chinnor. I hope that this achievement will encourage more volunteers to come forward to help complete the job.”
Danny Woodward, Chairman of The Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway said: “Our dedicated band of volunteers have not only saved this historic Great Western Railway building, but they have also saved a widely recognised Princes Risborough landmark that millions of Chiltern Railways’ passengers and townsfolk will be familiar with.”
The PNRB team would greatly appreciate any donations or sponsorship that may be available to complete the job. If you can help, the team can be emailed at Funding@RisboroughBox.org.uk. The team has its own website; www.RisboroughBox.org.uk for the latest news