During the long, hot summer of 1976, I was a signalman at Woodhead. Being remote, posts at the signal box were hard to fill. The other signalman was Dick Gibbs who lived in one of the former railway cottages at Woodhead. I lived in Newton (for Hyde) at the time and enjoyed the run to and from work, especially coming in for early turn or going home after a night turn when the A628 through the Longdendale Valley was virtually traffic-free.
Working 12-hour turns had been good for my bank balance and towards the end of the summer I bought a brand new Triumph Bonneville 750cc motorbike for £954 (I still needed to borrow some of the money). The bike handled brilliantly and I learned the trick of tightening the locking screw on the throttle so that it stayed open when I released the twist grip. On a pair of Dunlop TT100s, the bike would handle itself and my party piece was to set the throttle, remove my hands from the handlebars and ride as far as I could along the curving valley road, steering, literally, by the seat of my pants; what a machine!
Dick and I were on regular 12-hour shifts, alternating days and nights, week by week. Saturday was a good day, as the line closed after the 06.00 to 14.00 turn. Generally, the last train cleared the section by 12.00, more often than not a light engine movement. One of my colleagues in an adjacent box would phone the Control Office (I didn’t have the nerve) and check that nothing else was en-route. Then it was 7-5-5 all round on the block bells and the weekend had begun – the line was closed on Sundays.
Of course, by 1976 the Woodhead Line was freight-only with an occasional passenger diversion if the Hope Valley route was closed for engineering work or due to an emergency. The advent of a passenger train caused a bit of excitement, albeit that it would almost inevitably consist of a humble DMU on our all-electric railway. Very occasionally, the Harwich Boat Train would come our way. Fittingly, this train still conveyed a 6-wheel bogie teak Gresley buffet car, very appropriate for this outpost of the former LNER.
However, freight trains were our regular fare plus any number of light engine movements. It was common for train crews to haul their load over Pennines and return empty-handed; bad for economics but good for footplate jobs. On a good day we would average four trains an hour in each direction. Yorkshire coal for Fiddlers Ferry power station was a staple traffic, Merry-Go-Round trains headed by a pair of air-braked class 76s in multiple. Plenty of steel also came out of the east, emerging blinking into the sunlight at Woodhead. New 100-ton air-braked wagons were slowly replacing the old vacuum-braked bogie bolsters at this time.
One baking-hot day, the British Oxygen Company train came to a stand on the Up line at Woodhead signal box, a couple of hundred yards short of the tunnel entrance. The double-headed train consisted of twelve 100-ton bogie gas tanks filled with liquid nitrogen; this was a crack train in the world of freight. Having axles with roller bearings, we had little trouble with the train but today a wagon wheel bearing was running hot and the wagon had to be detached. The only option was for the train to draw forward into the tunnel and then set back into the sidings to put the wagon off.
Woodhead had some sidings which were used by an occasional tamping machine and a few engineer’s ballast wagons but it was many years since anything this long or heavy (25-ton axle load) had been inside them. The sidings disappeared into heather and bracken after a few yards and buffer stops were not much in evidence. A phone call to the local Permanent Way Supervisor at Dinting (the locally legendary Arnold Simpson) met with a curt (and hurt) response – of course the sidings were usable and in good fettle – back the train inside!
The train drew forward into the tunnel. The driver couldn’t see the dolly signal from his cab so I arranged with him that when I flicked the tunnel lights off and on a few times (Woodhead Tunnel was illuminated throughout), that would be his signal to stop and set back. All duly went to plan and after some cavorting in the sidings, the wagon was detached. The train proceeded towards Yorkshire and Woodhead returned to its peaceful summer doze with a bright and shiny new guest – a white BOC tanker with an orange stripe along the side and 50 tons of liquid nitrogen on board, slowly cooking in the midday sunshine.
As the afternoon drew on and there was a break in traffic, curiosity got the better of me and I wandered down from the signal box to the patch of moorland that was Woodhead sidings. The wagon gleamed in the sunlight – the BOC tankers were always clean – and a wisp of steam swirled up from underneath the tank. Only it wasn’t steam, it was nitrogen escaping from the tank, converting from liquid to gas and then dispersing in a few seconds. What was I to do? Was this supposed to happen? Should I tell someone?
The answer came quickly. As I peered under the belly of the tank, there was a huge blast of gas – imagine a steam locomotive safety valve blowing off upside down. With a roar in my ears, I ran (as I thought it) for my life; as far as I know, I still hold the Peak District record for 100 yards in Doctor Marten’s boots. By the time I reached the signal box, the noise had stopped, the gas had gone and all was tranquil again.
Bravely, I stuck at my post, sending 6-bells (“Obstruction Danger”) to Dunford West and Torside signal boxes, preventing any trains approaching Woodhead. About half an hour later, the Control rang to tell me to re-open the line. They’d been in touch with BOC who said that there was nothing to worry about – the tank was venting its expanding contents through its safety valve and nitrogen is an inert gas. Reminded of my schoolboy chemistry lessons, I felt relieved to hear this information.
A couple of hours later, a small white van with red lettering came bumping down the track from the main road to the signal box - the man from BOC had arrived. He assured me that he would sort things out and all would be well, then off he strolled to visit Woodhead’s latest tourist attraction. I quickly realised that “sorting things out” meant opening the wagon’s discharge valve and dumping 50 tons of liquid nitrogen into the hot, still afternoon air. The valley filled with a white mist to a depth of about six feet over several hundred yards between the wagon and the tunnel mouth – much to consternation of the crew of a west bound coal train that I had allowed to approach at caution. As soon as the locomotive stuck its nose out of the tunnel, the driver slammed on the brakes – it didn’t look safe to continue as far as he was concerned - and fancy words like “inert” were not going to convince him otherwise!
Eventually, the mist cleared, the BOC man went home and the next day the wagon was repaired and a locomotive arrived to take it away. All that was left was a frozen patch where the liquid gas (at -196°C) had been discharged – it took 48 hours for the ground to thaw. The story of my selfless courage was recounted many times (by me) over a pint or three of Boddington’s Bitter in the Star Inn next to Glossop station, only to fade, like the Woodhead line itself, into the (inert) mists of time.
© Andy Jones 2011