The single line from Alton to Winchester Junction was opened in 1865 with very rudimentary methods of operating trains, probably by a system called ‘time interval working’. Ten years later in 1875, signal boxes were built at each station along the single line – Itchen Abbas, Alresford, Ropley, Medstead and Alton – where passing loops were installed allowing trains to pass. These signal boxes were to a standard design designated LSWR (London & South Western Railway) Type 1 boxes. Just prior to this, a new signal box was built in 1871 at Winchester Junction where the Alton to Winchester line joined the main line from Basingstoke to Winchester and Southampton.
With the arrival of the new signal boxes, telegraph block working was introduced ensuring a much safer method of controlling trains. In 1889, the UK Parliament enacted ‘The Regulation of Railways Act’ following the Armagh rail disaster. This act empowered the Board of Trade to require any railway company to adopt the block system of signalling on any passenger railway and to provide for the interlocking of points and signals. Safety was further enhanced around 1891 with the introduction of Tyers No.3 Train Tablet Instruments at each signal box. Over the next three years the signals and points at each station were interlocked with the Tablet Instruments adding to the safe operation of trains on the single lines between stations.
In 1903, a new signal box was built at Alton together with one at Butts Junction, at the western end of Alton, to cater for the divergence of trains on the newly opened Alton and Basingstoke Light Railway and Meon Valley lines. These new signal boxes were of brick construction designated LSWR Type IV boxes. It was at this time that Tyers No.6 Train Tablet Instruments replaced the No.3 variety between Medstead and Butts Junction with Preece 1 wire Block working between Butts Junction and Alton.
The LSWR, in common with other railway companies at the time, used lower quadrant semaphore signals and these were installed throughout the line. In the early 1920’s the Society of Signalling Engineers decided to standardise on upper quadrant signals and it was this later type that were adopted for the then Southern Railway. However, mechanical signalling lasts a long time and with noreal need to replace it, lower quadrant signals remained in place for many years after the ruling. In fact, the only changes to upper quadrant was made in the 1950’s at Medstead & Four Marks and did not materialise at Alresford until after the demise of steam working in 1957.
In 1931, the Southern Railway decided that the traffic over the line did not warrant passing loops at Itchen Abbas and Ropley allowing the signal boxes at these two stations to be abolished and replaced by ground frames to permit access to the goods yards. Four years later in February 1935, Butts Junction signal box was also closed but the brick remains can still be seen in the undergrowth adjacent to the over bridges at The Butts. The only surviving examples of these Type IV signal boxes are at Farnham and Aldershot although these are scheduled for closure in August 2013. When Butts Junction Box closed, Tyers No.6 Train Tablet working was extended from Medstead right through to Alton.
In 1960, the Tyers No.3 Train Tablet instruments between Alresford and Medstead & Four Marks were replaced by Tyers Electric Key Token (EKT) machines although the Tyers No.6 Tablet Instruments were retained between Medstead & Four Marks and Alton.
Just seven years later, on 23rd January 1967, the signal box at Medstead & Four Marks was closed and one long single line section between Alresford and Alton was created using EKT machines at each end, although the Tyers No.3 Tablet Instruments were still retained between Alresford and Winchester Junction right through until the closure of the whole line. A copy of the final entry by the signalman in the Medstead Train Register has been obtained and is now framed on the wall in Medstead box.
The final closure of the line by British Railways between Alton and Winchester Junction came on 5th February 1973. Over the next four years, efforts were made to raise sufficient funds to purchase and preserve the railway between Alresford and Alton but by the time the deadline BR had stipulated had been reached, the funds raised allowed the purchase of the line together with its infrastructure between Alresford and Ropley only plus the land and station buildings between Ropley and Alton. British Railways then proceeded to lift the track between Ropley and Alton and also removed all the ballast.
Services on the new preserved Mid-Hants Railway started on 30th April 1977 between Alresford and Ropley. The signal box at Alresford was still basically in its ex-BR condition but was re-commissioned by the MHR just a month before on 27th March 1977. Ropley station consisted of one serviceable platform and a newly re-constructed run round loop. It was provided with a two lever ground frame (point and FPL with an Annett’s lock) together with a white marker light at the country end of the loop. The method of working was One Train Working with a Train Staff. One year later a new ground frame was installed at the country end of the loop that operated just one signal, the Up Home, and the points and FPL (facing point lock) leading into the station. Hand points were provided at the other end of the run round loop. At this time, Ropley became a block post and the method of working was changed to Train Staff and Ticket.
The next enhancements to the signalling occurred on 21st September 1980 when changes at Alresford saw the introduction of a Shunt Ahead signal under the Up Starting signal and connection of the Cattle Dock to the signal box and commissioning of 5 Pull/5 Push shunting signals. At Ropley, a Down Starting signal was added together with a Down Shunting from the Up Loop.
Over the next six years, the mammoth job of relaying the track up to Medstead & Four Marks was undertaken and during this time, work was also underway to erect a replacement signal box at Medstead on the original brick foundation on the Up platform. The first passenger trains to Medstead started on 28th May 1983 but as the signalling had not been commissioned at Medstead, the method of working the Ropley to Medstead section was One Train Working with a Train Staff with all movements at Medstead being controlled by a small ground frame and hand points at the London end.
Coincident with the opening to Medstead, the six lever ground frame at Ropley was abolished and replaced with a 15 lever ground frame located at the London end of the station that remained for the next 24 years until the ‘new’ signal box on the down platform was commissioned in 2007.
The final goal was relaying the track from Medstead & Four Marks to Alton. This task is well documented in the Mid-Hants News magazines of the time and was finally completed in readiness for the first train out of Alton on 25th May 1985. At Medstead the ground frame was abolished and all points were clipped and padlocked for through working only. At Alton, a four lever ground frame was provided for run round purposes at the country end of the station with the release lever fitted with an Annett’s Lock. The section became Ropley to Alton and the method of working was One Train Working with a Train Staff.
In October 1985 the ‘new’ signal box at Medstead was commissioned and Medstead once again became a block post. The sections became Ropley to Medstead using Tyers Electric Key Token Machines (EKT) and the Medstead to Alton using One Train Working with a Train Staff.
This method of working the Medstead and Alton section lasted for the next 25 years without the need of signalmen at Alton with the points being worked by the station staff, guard or loco crew.
During 1986, Electric Key Token (EKT) working was introduced between Alresford and Ropley replacing Train Staff and Ticket.
In 1993, the track in the Meon Loop at Alton was laid which allowed intensive services to operate with trains able to pass at Alton. This required Alton being operated as a block post based on the Staff & Ticket method of working. These days were very labour intensive as they required three signalmen at Alton to operate it utilising verbal communications with the Medstead signalman, hand signalling and the operation of three ground frames.
The final piece of the jigsaw slotted into place when Alton Signal Box was commissioned on 3rd March 2010 with EKT method of working on all three sections between Alresford and Alton.
Information on the four current signal boxes is covered in following sections.