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Princes Risborough North Signal Box

The following is a brief account of Princes Risborough North (PRN) signal box. For a more complete account please see RisboroughBox.org.uk.

Background: In 1904/5 Princes Risborough North (PRN) and South boxes were built and commissioned to GWR design by the Great Western & Great Central Joint Railway as part of the Bicester cut-off, which was the Great Western North Main Line from Old Oak Common (near Paddington) to Aynho (near Banbury). In 1988 with closure rumoured, the PRN building was listed. 1989 saw the last British Rail (BR) train run on the Chinnor Branch and the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway Association (CPRR) was formed with the aim of purchasing and preserving the line.

1991 saw the CPRRA purchase the branch from BR from a boundary about half a mile from Princes Risborough to Chinnor (3.5 miles). Purchase of the remainder was expected to follow, after anticipated BR resignalling and route modernisation. In 1991 PRN box closed, and the layout was resignalled and controlled from Marylebone. CPRR volunteers worked with BR staff to recover the redundant signals etc. which were purchased from BR. Large items were taken by train to Chinnor, smaller ones being stored in the PRN box. In 1991 it was anticipated that the CPRR could extend into Princes Risborough, so in addition to using the closed PRN box for storage of signalling equipment the CPRR informally took over day to day maintenance of the building. The line extension having not yet occurred (BR were still using the sidings), the interim arrangement over the box was formalised in 1993. CPRR members undertook significant maintenance work, including roof repairs and an external repaint.

More recent history: 1958 saw a major re-engineering of PRN, including renewal of the lever frame with a shorter modern one. In 1968 singling of the line northwards, simplification of the track layout, and closure of the South box. The lever frame in PRN was again shortened and the operating floor partitioned to create a crew mess room at the south end. 1993-1998 in addition to looking after this building, CPRR members purchased and recovered material from other closing signal boxes including Gerrards Cross, Aynho, Bradford Junction and Radyr Junction. Much of the smaller kit recovered was stored in PRN box.

Post-privatisation 1998 and the Railtrack safety regime began to bite. CPRR members had Personal Track Safety certification, but this was not recognised under the Sentinel scheme. We were asked to suspend work on the building, pending the conclusion of the extension arrangements (anticipated in a year or so). Though not realised at the time, this timescale estimate was to prove wildly wrong. Tools and signalling equipment became trapped in the box. Effectively the building had been abandoned. Following a break-in in 2011, British Transport Police requested CPRR attendance at the box. (No-one else would know what damage had been done or what had been taken.) Network Rail (NR) provided an escort.

The building was found to be in a very poor state structurally, with water damage, cracked and shifted brickwork, roof leaks etc. Damage from the break-in was by comparison insignificant. NR allowed CPRR volunteers to access the box under escort to carry out some emergency repairs. To make things easier, a fenced access route was constructed by NR so we could get there without the escorts, but another part of NR then vetoed this. We only had about 10 days of access when it was brought to an abrupt halt in early 2012. One thing we had achieved was to get a prop under one corner of the roof where a supporting timber was failing. Subsequently it seems likely that this would have collapsed had we not done so, and in that event who can say what would have been decided; demolition on grounds of safety? 2012 along with most of 2013 was lost, with no access.

A change of direction: Then changes in personnel at NR, together with an improved working relationship in connection with some through working of excursion trains, led to the path to the box being improved and authorised for our unescorted use from November of that year. We were back, hopefully this time to stay, broadly on the terms of the 1993 agreement with BR.

In the late 90s, the industrial estate behind the box was a demolition site. The box became the target for vandals, nearly 200 window panes being broken. Pigeons then moved in. In the 00s, a contractor for Railtrack boarded up the building, because the broken glass and the ailing staircase were seen as safety risks to track workers on a relaying project. The staircase was taken down pending our eventual repair.

Almost every weekend since October 2013 CPRR teams have been at PRN box. During 2017 most of the workforce was diverted to our platform restoration and extension project but as that approaches completion most are now back working on the box. Since 2013 priority has being given to structural tasks (fitting steel ties to halt brickwork movement, replacing rotted structural timbers, replacing failed mortar work including a collapsed window brick arch etc.), and to improvements in the working environment (admitting daylight and ventilation, removing layers of pigeon contamination, getting electrics and plumbing working etc.). The main staircase has also been completely rebuilt. Restoration had begun again with our previous efforts in the 90s having effectively been wiped out by the years of neglect, vandals and weather.

On 1st March 2017 a lease was completed covering land required to re-instate a passenger service into Princes Risborough station. This included the land upon which the signal box resides so the CPRR is now fully responsible for its upkeep and all the liabilities which go with it. Most of the windows on the operation floor have now been re-glazed and the internal partition wall has been restored. During 2018 and beyond work will continue on many parts of the signal box. There is still a lot more to be done so why not get involved if this appeals to you. Our contact details are on the signal box website which is at the end of this article.

We are most grateful to the Railway Heritage Trust who have recently awarded us a grant towards some of the materials needed for restoration. The trust members had visited the signal box on a number of occasions over the years and were well aware of the work that we have been doing to restore this iconic railway structure. On each occasion discussions had taken place and have been fully supportive throughout.

For more details please visit the signal box website at RisboroughBox.org.uk.

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