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By John McGoldrick on

The piece of plastic that keeps the rail network running

You've probably seen an object like this on a station platform - but what's it for?

This dispatch baton, recently donated to the museum, may be a familiar sight to many of you. It is usually wielded by a member of platform staff at larger stations to signal that a train is ready to leave

If you travel a lot by rail then this might be the last object you see as you dive onto an imminently departing train. Alternatively, it might be the sign that heralds the sinking realisation that you have just missed your crucial train connection. It really is one of the most critical aspects of making sure trains set off on time, avoiding accidents to passengers and staff in the process.

This may seem like a mundane object compared to some of the treasures in the National Collection, but tools of the trade like this are key to making sure that busy passenger services tick over efficiently.

Here’s my understanding how these batons are used. The baton is raised by the responsible member of staff to indicate to the Train Manager that platform duties are complete, and that the train doors can be closed. The Train Manager or Conductor closes the train doors, if they are automatic. On longer slam-door trains it is sometimes necessary to have an extra member of staff with a baton to relay a signal to their platform colleague if the Train Manager is not able to see the entire train because of a curving platform. The showing of the baton is usually accompanied by a blast of a whistle.

I’m sure that there are slight variations on how this works, which readers are welcome to alert us to. Hopefully this helps to explain why many trains close their doors up to a minute before departure.

With the most recent driver-only trains, it is common for platform staff to hold a dispatch baton up to one of the cameras fitted to the side of the train, which is then viewed by the driver on a monitor in the cab.

The example we have collected bears the iconic British Rail ‘double arrow’ logo, usefully dating it to 1997 at latest. I’ve included some images (above and below) of railway workers from the 1920s and 1964 giving trains the ‘Right away!’, using hand signals and flags. Whatever the method used, they highlight the importance of the human element in ensuring the safety of rail passengers and the trains running on time.

Which reminds me, I really must run faster to catch my train…

17 comments on “The piece of plastic that keeps the rail network running

  1. Are you sure about the date? The BR double arrow contimues to be used all over the network and so there’s no reason they shouldn’t still be producing battons with it on.

  2. Phil,
    Thanks for your comment. I’m open to suggestions about the date of the baton, however I am basing my theory on the fact that train dispatch batons available from industry suppliers are not branded with the BR double arrow logo I did also recently have a sneaky loook at batons used by staff at a couple of stations, and they all are non branded. I take your point about the prevalence of the double arrow logo across the network – it is still the widely accepted railway symbol!

  3. Hi John,

    Great article, but I’d possible like to add about driver-only trains. Having worked as a member of dispatch staff at Brighton, it is proceedure for one member of staff at the rear of the train to signal to a member of staff next to the drivers cab with a white bat that stations duties are complete. The staff next to the driver shows the driver a white bat to close the doors. The member of staff at the rear then shows the white bat again to show that all doors are closed and passengers are clear. The dispatcher by the driver then shows the driver a green flag (green light at night time).

    1. Hi Ben,

      Thanks for commenting. There are obviously some variations in how trains are dispatched. I think it’s important that we represent at least something from this area of railway work. We have a good range of flags, whistles and hand lamps (including Bardic) in the collections, but it’s important that our collections represent some of the more up to date practices. The dispatch baon with LEDs mentioned by another poster sounds potentially interesting . . .

  4. When I worked on Derby station a few years ago, you used to give one long blast on your whistle to announce that the train was about to leave. On trains with automatic doors, this was the cue for the Guard to close the doors – with an HST (having checked that all the doors were closed properly – handles horizontal) it was the signal for the Guard to lock the doors. THEN I showed the baton and gave two blasts on the whistle as a signal for the train to depart. We didn’t have any DOO trains at that time.

  5. It’s worth emphasising that the whistle is not the signal – instead it draws attention to the signal, which is either the baton, the flag, or the raised hand(s). The signal can also be to stop the train rather than to start it – this can happen if the Guard or platform staff spot something wrong after the train has been started. The stop signal would be a red flag or lamp, *both* arms raised, or an object (possibly the baton) or lamp waved vigorously. On trains with internal communication bells or buzzers, two beats is to start, one beat to stop.

    At night, quite often Bardic lamps are still used instead of the baton, especially on poorly lit stations. Bardics look like old-fashioned torches, and have the special feature of selectable coloured filters. They can therefore be used to display white, red or green lights as required. When not giving a signal, the white light is used simply to provide illumination.

    The precise timing of the start signal depends on the type of train – or rather the type of doors fitted to it. With slam doors (easily identified by having handles instead of buttons), the signal means that the doors are already closed, and presumably the Guard has already locked them (all mainline trains with slam doors now have central locking, eg. the HST was retrofitted some time ago). With automatic doors, the signal from platform staff is given *to* the Guard, who closes the doors and then uses the internal communication buzzer to start the train. In both cases, platform staff and the Guard must also check the platform starter signal is cleared – on long platforms this is the purpose of the “OFF” indicator – before issuing a start signal, to protect against the Driver forgetting to do so himself.

    The above obviously applies to traditional two-man operation.

    I remember once I was waiting for a different train than was currently in the platform, both trains being late-running, probably due to the WCML upgrades that were in progress at the time. A boarding passenger had failed to close one of the doors properly, so the Guard hurried towards it. Since I happened to be much closer, I closed it for him, after which he returned to his own door and gave the departure signal – with the baton. That probably saved almost a minute, which would otherwise have further delayed both that train and my own.

  6. By way of contrast, in Finland the driver is responsible for the doors as well as the train movements. The conductor gives a signal on the internal buzzer once departure time is reached and the doors are free of boarding passengers, and the driver then closes the doors.

    Because the platforms are almost all perfectly straight, the driver can safely watch for trapped objects or people using a simple rear-view mirror, which on mainline trains (not the metro) folds against the bodyside when in motion.

    This leaves the conductor free to sell tickets and keep order, and prevents delays caused by the conductor being unable to reach a door operation panel upon arrival. This latter situation is unfortunately frequently seen on crowded trains in Britain, when (as on the Sprinter and Pacer families) the panel is beside a passenger door.

  7. A trains doors SHOULD NOT BE CLOSED “a minute before departure”
    This is fraud & deception.
    If you are going to start the train a minute earlier, then the Timetable should say so!

    Meanwhile, I have noted a new variant on the baton, used at Stratford (London), & possibly elsewhere.
    These batons now contain a small LED-array & a 4 or 3-position switch, so that, when held up, it can show:
    No light
    Whilte light – “Ready, CD”
    Green light – “RA”
    Red light – STOP

    Very neat – a great improvement.

    1. Greg – the problem is that for the train to depart on time, you have to start the sequence of events in advance of departure time, so that the train can leave with all doors closed and locked at the appointed time. This is why passengers are ADVISED that they should be on the train a minute before departure – platform staff are NOT allowed to hold the train (except in VERY exceptional circumstances) but there’s always the option of boarding via the door the Guard is using right up to the waving of the white side of the baton.

      1. It’s a reasonable point of view, although I might not express it so strongly. It results from a difference in point of view between passengers and the Operating Department, combined with the nontrivial amount of time it takes to transition a train from “all doors open” to “moving”. On the most modern trains, this is tens of seconds occupied by the hustle alarm and the artificially slow movement of the doors, both of which are disability accommodation measures.

        Passengers expect that they can arrive at the station at the advertised departure time and get on the train – especially if they have a reserved seat and a ticket limited to that specific train. To arrive on the platform at 19:59:45 for a 20:00 train and be refused entry by the train and platform staff, leaving them with a paid-for ticket that is now worthless, is probably where Greg’s problem lies.

        The purpose of departing on time is chiefly to enable arriving on time – and incidentally to allow other trains with conflicting movements to arrive on time as well. Passengers also legitimately expect to be able to get off the train at their destination at the advertised time. Both departure and arrival times are advertised in the Public Timetable.

        From the operating department’s point of view, a train arrives on time if it stops in the platform within the minute following the time in the Working Timetable. Likewise, it departs on time if it starts moving (towards a clear signal) at the correct time in the Working Timetable. There is normally a close correspondence between the Working and Public Timetables, except that Working Timetables are written to half-minute precision, and Public Timetables only to the nearest minute.

        Japanese working timetables are written to 5-second precision. Japanese drivers therefore have a much more precise idea of whether they are on time or not at timing points. Japanese trains also appear to favour sliding-pocket doors even in the newest commuter designs, minimising station dwell times compared to the European predilection for sliding plugs. All of this helps to maintain the Japanese railways’ reputation for punctuality.

        It is entirely possible to reconcile the public and official points of view by having the Working Timetable list departure times half a minute after the Public Timetable, and arrival times at least half a minute before. That this is not universally adhered to already leads to much confusion and frustration among passengers.

  8. I could be wrong but I have a feeling that this concept was first used at the preserved East Lancs Railway in the early 1990’s….In December when the Santa Special trains were being run these were formed of up to 10 coaches plus loco and due to the slight curve of the platform at Ramsbottom something was needed to try and make the ‘right away’ more obvious in daylight to the platform staff and the guard who was at the opposite end of the stock. The station master Mr Almond fashioned a piece of wood with a fluorescent circle on the top which would be shown along with a blast on the whistle for the ‘right away’ which was then repeated down the platform to the guard. Initially the fluorescent circle on the ‘baton’ was a shade of pink and it was quickly highlighted that this would need to be changed as it looked like ‘red’ so I think we changed it to a fluorescent green. It was then used for a long time after. I don’t recall these being used on the national network at the time so maybe someone saw this at Ramsbottom and replicated it nationally !

  9. This was my invention when I was working at British rail in the early 1990’s. I was working at Sittingbourne station in Kent at the time and put my idea/invention into the dedicated ideas box for staff to suggest things to improve railway running. I won £100 for the idea and had the paddle created. I was given the very first one to keep!

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