Between East Perth and Perth the South West Railway ran parallel with and unconnected to, the Eastern Railway - with the two railways operating as separate lines. Such parallel running would become a relatively common feature in Western Australia, with similar arrangements being employed at Kalgoorlie, Narrogin, Collie, Coolgardie, Geraldton, Merredin, Spring Hill, Mount Magnet and York that followed the example pioneered by East Perth - although East Perth would always remain the most impressive example of the genre.
However, all this was to change with the boom that accompanied the great 1890s gold rush. The strains and stresses it placed on the Western Australian railway network are too well known to require repeating here: suffice it to say that in a few short years the West Australian Railways goods haulage task increased some 20 fold, stretching the system to near breaking point. Under a scheme instigated by the great C. Y. O’Connor, the Eastern Railway was virtually rebuilt, involving substantial regrading, the laying of heavier rail, new crossing loops and, relevantly, duplication of the Eastern Railway from Fremantle to Bellevue. It was this relaying that was to see East Perth's introduction into the world of interlocking.
Duplication of the Eastern railway began in late May 1896, the West Australian of the 28th day of that month reporting that on the Monday preceding a start had been made on the work of duplicating the railway line between Fremantle and Midland Junction. The article further reported that preliminary work between Perth and East Perth, in the form of laying in of the interlocking signalling apparatus and the erection of signal boxes, had been undertaken, and:
" ... The line from Perth to East Perth on the South-Western railway is to be relaid, the 46 lb rails being replaced by 60 lb rails. This work has been included in the…
…trains running on the heavier rails to proceed as far at East Perth and to cross at that point in order to avoid hampering the traffic in the Perth station yard. This section of the Eastern Railway improvements will be completed within a week."
From a safeworking viewpoint, this article raises a number of interesting questions which probably will never be definitely answered. The fact that trains were to cross at East Perth indicates that East Perth was to become a junction, although whether or not the track between Perth and East Perth was to be worked as two separate lines, rather than as a duplicated track with separate Up and Down lines is not clear. The fact that the report mentions that trains on the heavier rails could cross at East Perth clearly indicates the presence of a crossover from the Eastern to the South West lines, for without this refinement such as a ‘cross’ would have been impossible. Unfortunately, the report does not indicate whether trains for both lines could cross at East Perth.
Staff and Ticket working applied to both lines (Train Electric Staff working was not to be introduced until early 1897), and it is impossible to see how the sections for each line could have been anything other than Perth - East Perth. If both the Eastern Railway and South West Railway between Perth and East Perth were worked a separate lines, then each line had to have a Staff for the Perth - East Perth section: The fact that the Eastern trains could cross onto the South West line meant that the East Perth had to be a staff station to ensure facilitation of this. If this was the case, then such an arrangement - two staffs for two separate lines between the same stations was probably a unique event in Western Australian safeworking history and one that had the potential for significant risk. No doubt drivers were carefully enjoined to ensure that they did not take the wrong staff before leaving either station. Alternatively, if the line from Perth to East Perth was to have been worked as a double line, then the arrangement could only have been Staff and Ticket on both the Up and the Down, possibly the only example of such working to have ever existed in Western Australia.
To facilitate the safeworking arrangements above it was, naturally, necessary to install interlocked points and signals at East Perth, controlled from a signal cabin. This cabin was opened on the 8th August 1896, the press reporting that, with its opening, the Eastern Railway between West Perth and East Perth was now interlocked, and that other locations would be interlocked "as soon as possible".
The only official surviving WAGR documentation recording the opening of East Perth signal box appears to be the 1897 Annual report, which reported that both East Perth station and the junction had been interlocked, and that a plot of land was resumed in East Perth for the purpose of the construction of a signal box. As this resumption required the closure of part of a public road, an Act of Parliament was needed to achieve this laudable aim. The relevant act (Road Closure (Perth) 62 Vic c 14, or ,as would be described today, No 14 of 1896) authorised the resumption of a roughly oblong shaped parcel of land at Sampson Street, East Perth, as well as the closure of part of the said street and its revestment in the Commissioner of Railways.
The cabin was probably located near Sampson Street, some 53 chains from Perth Station. The author uses the word "probably" as he has not found a definitive plan showing its location. The only plan he has located to date showing it location is an undated plan titled "Proposed Signal Cabins between Perth and East Perth" the title of which indicate a degree of caution is needed in accepting what is described therein. However, corroborative evidence exists to indicate that the plan is accurate.
The first is the reference in the 1897 report read with to the resumption of land abovementioned Act of Parliament, identifying the area of land resumed for the box as being near Sampson Street. The second, oddly enough, is to be found in the Public Notices of the West Australian of 15 January 1897. A gentleman named Mr J McCarthy advertised that he had found a gold watch, and the owner could collect it from his address, which was in Sampson Street, East Perth, "the second house from the signal box". We cannot be certain whether Mr McCarthy’s honesty resulted in the watch being claimed from its rightful owner. We can be certain that he could never have foreseen that his honesty would one day help solve a conundrum that he never knew would exist utilising a technology that not even the most forward thinker of the 1890s could have ever imagined.
East Perth's role as the junction from single to double line working on the Eastern Railway was to be short lived, for the duplication from Perth to Midland Junction was opened in the early part of 1897. It was, however, to remain as the junction for the South Western and Eastern railways, a role which it still performs today, although some might question whether a transit system relying totally on electric railcars is a "railway" within the classical meaning of the expression.
The cabin was an elevated structure identical to the contemporary cabin installed at West Perth. It was a small box, measuring some 13 feet by 10 feet. Seven windows gave excellent views along the longitudinal axis. Access to the cabin was by a by an external staircase. An 8 foot opening allowed for a small frame (approximately 20 levers (calculated – Ed.)), although how many levers were installed is not recorded on any surviving documentation. Given the likely simplicity of the location, with only a crossover and single track connection to the South West Railway, probably little more than a dozen or so levers, controlling the Up and Down Distant signals, Home and Starting signals on all four approaches (South Western and Eastern from Perth initially, then Eastern from Perth, South Western from Bunbury and Eastern from Midland), and the crossover would have been needed even during the brief period that the location marked the end of end of the Perth to East Perth sections. The box probably also controlled a number of private sidings, including the Perth Electric Tramway siding, as well as a public siding, although the later had been closed to all traffic except that for the Resident Engineer by the end of August 1898.
The cabin worked with Perth Box A (as it was to be known until 1899) and, initially (until February 1897) with the "15 Mile" Box (located near todays Maylands station) on the Eastern Railway, and thereafter with Bayswater. On the South West Railway the cabin worked with Burswood, (a name it has reverted to in recent years but for a while was named Rivervale), which opened in April 1899. Absolute block working applied on the Eastern Railway. Initially Staff and Ticket working applied on the South West Railway, however, in March 1898, a start was made on the introduction of Electric Staff working on that line, the first section opened being East Perth to Burswood.
The first cabin at East Perth was to have a short life. The oldest surviving railway plan of East Perth shows that the cabin had been removed by 1902 and replaced by a signal cabin located immediately south of East Perth station. This cabin was not the same cabin as the 1896 cabin, being much larger than its predecessor. Precisely when the first cabin was closed and relocated is not clear: the act of its replacement seems to have escaped the attention of both the compilers of the then new Weekly Notices or the Authors of the relevant Annual Reports. However, in this Author’s opinion, there is strong prima facie case that the cabin was closed in August 1899, shortly before or contemporaneously with the opening of the nearby Lord Street Cabin.
This cabin, which was a block post between East Perth and Perth, was located barely 13 chains west of the East Perth cabin. While closely spaced cabins reduced section length, and increased headway in busy times, cabins could not be located too close together. WAGR signalling practice closely followed the UK Board of Trade practice, which required a minimum distance of a quarter mile between Distant and Home signals. While it was permissible for a cabin to have its Distant on the same post as the Starting signal - or Home, if it were a block post - of the cabin "in the rear", that is, the cabin that a train travelling towards it would pass first, it's Distant could not be on the approach side of that post.
This can best be understood by imagining a train travelling from Perth to East Perth. Approaching Lord Street, the driver would first encounter the Lord Street Distant signal, followed by the Lord Street Home signal, which (confusingly, for the signal performed the function of a Starting signal) that controlled the entrance into the section Lord Street to East Perth. The East Perth Distant could be on the same post as the Lord Street Home. However, it (the East Perth Distant) could not be located between the Lord Street Distant signal and the Lord Street Home signal. Such an arrangement would be confusing at best and dangerous at worst. If the East Perth signal cabin was too close to Lord Street, the requirement of a Distant being at least a quarter mile from the Home / Starting signal would mean that the East Perth Distant would be located between the Lord Street Home and the Lord Street Distant. Similar considerations would apply to a train approaching Perth from East Perth.
Evidence which tends to corroborate this hypothesis can be found in Weekly Notice No 34 of 1899, which announced the opening of Lord Street. The notice contained an instruction, later to be incorporated into the 1901 General Appendix, which read:
" ...The Down line must not be considered clear, nor must a train be allowed to approach from Perth, until the preceding train has passed at least a quarter of a mile beyond the Down Home signal, and the line is clear for at least a quarter of a mile ahead of the Home Signal, and the previous train is proceeding on its journey."
Such an arrangement - viz a train not being allowed to approach Lord Street on the Down main until it predecessor was at a quarter of a mile past the Down home - would not have been possible had East Perth box been 13 chains east of Lord Street.
In this author’s opinion, the most likely reason for the relocation of the East Perth cabin was to prevent this potential overlap arising. Shifting the cabin to opposite the East Perth station, increased the distance between it and Lord Street to 25 chains. It also had the advantage of saving wages: by placing it close to a station the cabin could be worked by station staff (rather than Signalmen), when East Perth was to be opened as an attended station.
If the box was closed in 1899 it holds the distinction of being the first WAGR signal box to close. And what became of the first East Perth box? By virtue of operating one of the world's most isolated railway networks, the WAGR had to be recyclers of just about every item of a capital nature, and signal cabins were no exception. One can be pretty certain that, barring some catastrophe, the box would have been reused in some format, most likely being relocated at another location, possibly even surviving into comparatively recent times, and perhaps still extant today, it's historic connections still unrecognised. East Perth was to continue to be a manually interlocked location for the next 90 or so years, but that, as they say, is another story.
Any additional information on this signal cabin would be most welcome - please use the e-mail form provided on this page.
Article researched and interpreted by Justin Smith © 2016
Employee information courtesy of WAGR Employment Register held at the State Records Office, Perth.
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