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By Sam Terrace on

Volunteers’ Week: A day in the life of a Signalling School Volunteer

As Volunteers' Week approaches its conclusion, we find out just how much work goes into running our Signalling School model railway for a day.

Today we’re joined by L&Y Signalling School volunteer Phil Graham.

For over 100 years the Lancashire & Yorkshire Signalling School model railway has been used to train railway signallers. It uses authentic period signalling instruments to show how trains negotiate around the rail network safely.

Phil worked in signalling in his professional career and now he has retired he brings his skills and experience to the museum as Team Leader for the group of volunteers who help us maintain the Signalling School and who run regular demonstrations for the public and private groups. To find out when they are next doing a demonstration, visit the event page.

Phil tells us more about the setup and his role…

What is your volunteer role?

I lead the volunteer team who runs the L&Y Signalling School.

How long have you volunteered at the museum?

Fifteen years.

And how long do you see yourself continuing to volunteer at the museum?

Till death us do part!

Describe your typical day volunteering

The ‘day’ (one Saturday per month) actually starts a few weeks before the day itself. We always reconstruct one accident per operating day. I need to research this, from the accident report, contemporary newspaper/magazine articles and the Great Britain census. Then I need to write the accident—effectively as a play—and make it fit with our layout and rolling stock. Then work out who is best to play each part.

Before the day, I also need to ensure that we have enough volunteers available and give some thought to how they can best be rostered.

On the day we demonstrate normal signalling operations on our 105-year-old model railway at 11.00, 11.30, 12.00, 14.30 and 15.00, rehearse the accident at 09.40,  reconstruct the accident at 13.30 and then interactively (with the public) demonstrate the working of single-line token instruments at 14.15.

During the same periods, we also operate our full-size signalbox (NRM Central), inviting visitors to have a go themselves. We also interpret the real-time signalling displays which continuously record the current signalling and train movement activity around York Station.

We talk and engage with our visitors at all these three exhibits and usually attract quite a crowd, especially at our accidents—some visitors regularly come especially to see this!

We also regularly open for special pre-booked partie—typically from the current rail industry, retired railway groups, U3A or Probus groups, young volunteers from other groups, plus cubs and scouts and schools. We have to tailor these days to meet the requirements of these diverse parties.

Why do you volunteer at the museum?

Because I enjoy it.

What is the best thing about volunteering?

Being a part of the museum, passing on knowledge (mostly obtained from my career) to visitors and knowing that our team has added to the experience and enjoyment of their visit.

And being trusted to just get on with it.

What difference do you think you make to the museum in your role?

We bring static exhibits to life—there are always visitors who comment “I have never seen this working before”. We can see how much this is appreciated.

Volunteers are such a major part of the museum. We are treated just the same as the paid staff, with whom we get on so well; we really are one team.

What do you get out of volunteering? 

A sense of achievement, friendship, and a continuation of my career into retirement—oh, and a pint with some of the lads at the end of the day!

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