Princes Risborough North Signal Box; The Wilderness Years

The signal box was closed by British Rail in February 1991, as part of route modernisation of what we now know as the Chiltern Line. Signalling control was moved to a new “Integrated Electronic Control Centre” at Marylebone.

Once impending closure was announced (in the late eighties), local people had campaigned successfully to get the building preserved, and it was “listed” grade 2. However there was no apparent use or occupier for the building.

Around the same time, the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway Association had been formed, with the intention of buying, preserving and operating the remaining part of the Watlington branch between those stations. The track beyond Chinnor having been lifted many years earlier but this end survived to serve Chinnor cement works. Once the CPRRA purchased track between Chinnor and the British Rail boundary on the outskirts of Princes Risborough and started operating, there was a general presumption that it would soon be able to negotiate land or running rights with BR to allow it to run into Princes Risborough station where it would rebuild a platform for its use. It was clearly sensible that the North Box would pass to the CPRRA at the same time.

So an interim agreement was reached with BR which allowed access to the box by CPRRA members, who would look after it and restore equipment etc.. Although it wasn't seen this way at the time, the CPRRA had in effect become the rent-free tenant and custodian.

A lot of work was done by CPRRA members: A full repaint was carried out inside and out; the roof was repaired and a chimney rebuilt; the staircase was repaired and strengthened; equipment was bought from other closing boxes to replace missing items in the North Box. The building was generally maintained in readiness for the day when it would come back into use.

By the mid noughties, the place was in a sorry state. Prior to some track relaying work, the box was considered a safety hazard due to the potential of broken glass falling on workers below. The decision was taken by Railtrack (or was it Network Rail by then?) to board up the box. The building, if not its fate, was sealed.

In 2011 there was a break-in, and the police requested CPRRA attendance as we were the only ones who could tell what was damaged or missing. This set a challenge as we weren't allowed to go there because of the track safety regime! So Network Rail provided escorts. It transpired that the break-in had not been serious (other than to the boarding and door), but accessing the building revealed an alarming state of affairs: a long term water leak had flooded part of the top floor, of course flowing down through the building from there. The ceiling of an equipment room had collapsed as a result. Equipment was rusted and in some cases full of water. A structural timber had rotted out. The full extent of the pigeons' leavings was recognised for the first time. Also the brickwork showed numerous cracks indicating some movement of the structure, and the arch over one of the windows had collapsed.

The Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway Association is a registered charity, number 1016237. It and the railway it owns are operated, managed, developed and maintained entirely by volunteers.

©PRNB 2015                                         Updated: 16/04/2012                                                     E&OE

However the negotiations stumbled and dragged, rail privatisation changed the rules of the game and the identities and character of the players, and the full onslaught of modern health and safety culture hit hard. The track safety regime under Railtrack presented increasing problems, and eventually in 1998 it was decided that it was no longer tenable for CPRRA members to routinely access the box. Maintenance and restoration stopped. It would only be for a short while, until negotiations were completed and the box belonged to the CPRRA, wouldn't it? Vandals threw stones over the fence from the industrial estate nearby. Seeing that glass didn't get repaired, they threw more. Over time, they managed to break 197 of the 421 window panes. The pigeons were pleased, and moved in.

Clearly something had to be done, and NR agreed to provide an escort occasionally so we could take action. Of course with perhaps one day of access a month and no funding we were limited, but work started and progress had been made.

That's the next chapter....