My nationwide quest to visit every possible location in England, Scotland and Wales that still has semaphore signalling comes to a glorious end at a remarkable outpost of mechanical signalling, and one that for much of the year controls the daily movement of steam-hauled trains.
Three decades after the rest of the West Highland lines from Glasgow to Oban and Mallaig were converted to radio signalling (RETB), one charming reminder of the past is Fort William Junction, just north-east of Fort William station and convergence of the route from Glasgow with the Mallaig extension.
Here mechanical signalling remains, less than two miles from the route’s control centre at Banavie, and a North British Railway box dating from 1894 stands in the fork between the two lines and has eight semaphore arms under its control, along with a handful of disc shunting signals. Pictured above is 73971 passing the box on 5 October 2017 with the Caledonian Sleeper service from London Euston.
There is a good vantage point close to the box from a bridge carrying a path that leads from the A82 road just beyond an oil depot. This path leads to a housing estate north of the Mallaig line and, by following a path on the line-side of the estate, it is possible to reach a second good viewing spot from a footbridge just short of the sidings used by West Coast Railways to store the two steam locomotives and stock of its “Jacobite” service.
From the first bridge a look towards the town reveals the only modern semaphore post in the area, a very tall aluminium structure overlooking the oil depot sidings (pictured above), where the Class 73 sleeper loco is stored during the day. This has a Junction arm for Mallaig (FW27), a taller signal (FW24) for the main line and a shunting signal beneath. In this view, 156476/492 are signalled onto the Mallaig route on 5 October 2017 with the 08.21 from Glasgow Queen Street.
Looking towards the box there is a tall home signal (FW7) protecting exit from the Mallaig line, with a shorter one (FW13) on the approach from Glasgow. Out of sight beyond the A82 road over-bridge in the distance is another up signal near a junction for sidings serving the aluminium smelting works, which seems to be the only remaining source of regular freight traffic on the route.
Standing on the footbridge close to the two sets of sidings, there is a view back towards the box of Mallaig starter signal FW26, partially obscured by a tree. Looking north, and alongside the West Coast Railways sidings, are outer home signal FW6 and a section signal in the Mallaig direction (FW25) with a notice on it advising drivers that it marks the start of radio token working. Pictured below K1 62005 “Lord of the Isles” approaches FW25 on Thursday, 5 October with the 10.15 Fort William-Mallaig “Jacobite” service.