Seven thousand applications for 60-person tour of famous Birmingham signal box
It may be easier to win the National Lottery than to see inside an iconic example of 1960s brutalist railway architecture. Network Rail, the organisers of one-off public tours of the former Birmingham New Street signal box, have revealed that they received more than 7,000 applications for just sixty places on offer. Network Rail has now contacted all of the astonishingly lucky attendees by telephone to confirm their places and let them know what to expect this coming Friday 31 March.
It is possibly the best-known and least noticed building in the centre of Birmingham. It is certainly overlooked by the majority of the 140,000 passengers who use New Street station every day. However, the once in a lifetime opportunity to visit Birmingham Signalling Centre caught the imagination of the public at large, with less than one in a hundred successfully applying to tour the building this Friday. The Network Rail team, which is organising the tours in conjunction with signalling staff, has been overwhelmed by the level of interest to get the chance to go inside the Brutalist building. The team also wanted to gently remind people not to turn up with any Eventbrite raffle ticket, which ceased to be valid after the random draw was made.
Much criticised subterranean platform level
The building is as far removed from the traditional concept of the signal box. The angular concrete design exemplified the white-hot technological optimism of 1960s Britain. It was commissioned as part of a step change in the county’s railway network, moving out of the Victorian steam age into an electrified space age. The original New Street had suffered significant bomb damage in the Second World War, which was only partially addressed by peace-time remodelling. A much wider modernisation of the West Coast Main Line, including a complete rebuild of New Street station, was carried out in the early 1960s.
The second New Street station, with a vastly increased rail capacity, replaced the elaborate Victorian design with a functional, but much criticised subterranean platform level. Although the surface level station concourse has been redesigned again, to much acclaim, the platforms remain buried under the Birmingham streets, punctuated by the 200 columns that support the buildings above. Telecommunications and signalling were also modernised with the opening of the new signal box which centralised the control of train movements around Birmingham. While the station has seen much redevelopment, the signal box has remained largely unchanged, and it is now a Grade II listed building, making it part of the nation’s built heritage.
Working life not finished
“The response to our rare tours inside this important piece of railway architecture has been fantastic and has completely blown us away”, said Bethanie Hayton, Network Rail senior communications manager. “We have spoken to everyone who was lucky enough to be randomly selected for a place on the tours. We thank everyone who took the time to apply but weren’t lucky enough to be drawn in the ballot. However, I’d please urge people who have not been phoned in person to please not to come on the day with any form of ticket. They are now void and we’d hate for anyone to make a wasted journey and be disappointed when we have to turn them away.”
At the building’s peak up to 1,200 trains were directed by its team of signallers every day. Last Christmas the analogue technology made way for digital, and responsibility for all train movements through Britain’s busiest station outside of London was passed over to the West Midlands Signalling Centre in east Birmingham. The building however will not finish its working life. After the tours take place work will start to transform it into a training centre for the next generation of railway signallers.
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