Exterior from the street of Birmingham New Street Power Signal Box

Birmingham’s brutalist box bows out

Exterior from the street of Birmingham New Street Power Signal Box Network Rail

The power signal box on the edge of Birmingham New Street station has finally come to the end of its working life. Last Christmas, 57 years after being commissioned as part of the radical overhaul of the city’s main interchange, the signallers pulled off the final levers and dispatched the last of more than 1000 daily trains that are routed by the centre. The PSB, which is an architecturally significant building, has now been decommissioned, but its future has yet to be decided, given its valuable city centre location – not to mention unrivalled views of operations at the busy station.

Almost every passenger through Birmingham New Street, since 1966 (even those celebrating England’s World Cup victory), has cast eyes on the celebrated building. The PSB was given Grade II listed building status in 1995 for its ‘dramatic and exceptional architectural quality’ and ‘strongly sculptural form’. That does mean the building will remain in situ, and provided its appearance does not change, it can be repurposed.

Saltley state of the art signalling centre

The box was built as part of the West Coast Main Line route modernisation in the 1960s, when the route made a radical leap forward from steam to electric traction. As the wires went up, 64 traditional manually operated signal boxes were replaced by four power boxes in the West Midlands.

Those powers boxes, which themselves were the height of progress and technology, are in turn being replaced by a state of the art signalling centre, also located in Birmingham, at Saltley, just over a kilometre from New Street. The new signalling centre sits at the heart of the city’s rail infrastructure, and within sight of the new HS2 high speed rail project.

750,000 man-hours invested in project

Built in the Brutalist style, so popular in the 1960s, the external appearance of the box has divided opinion over its seven decades. However, the Grade II listed Birmingham Power Signal Box has been at the heart of the country’s railway network since it started operation in 1966. “It uses a huge telephone exchange linked to mechanical relays controlling signals and points, with staff manually setting safe routes for trains through Britain’s busiest station outside of London”, says Network Rail. “Despite its age much of the equipment has been working constantly since it was installed with some components never needing any maintenance. However the 1960s technology has become increasingly difficult to maintain with spare parts often in short supply. Since January 2021 all of Birmingham New Street’s signalling equipment has been converted to digital in line with the rest of the region.”

The interior of New Street signal box. Operators are working on route-setting panel and central control desk.
At work in the New Street power signal box in the 1960s. Operators are working on route-setting panel and central control desk. Image: Kidderminster Railway Museum

The preparations for the move out fo the 1960s and into the 2020s has been underway almost two years. Over the last 23 months, Birmingham New Street has seen 114 new signals, 232 axle counters, and 230 miles (374km) of cabling installed. Three quarters of a million man-hours have been invested in the project. With the railway largely in planned shut down over the Christmas break, the switch from the PSB to the West Midlands Signalling Centre in Saltley will be accomplished, with final testing on the new system ahead of resumed service this Tuesday 27 December.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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