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Safety First on line for Passengers

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Signal box at Sandringham.c1970. Courtesy Leader Collection.

Over recent months the old semaphore signals which have controlled the safe management of trains between Cheltenham and Parkdale for the past 100 years have been phased out.

They have been replaced by a system in keeping with this high-tech age.

While this hasn’t meant much to regular passengers unaware that their safety has been improved, it marks a new era for Cheltenham signalman Richard Gilbert.

“The railway from Caulfield to Frankston was constructed as a single line, which in the early 1880s was sufficient to handle the traffic, with trains passing each other at stations with loop sidings,” he said.

To avoid two trains meeting head-on along the single track between stations, a metal disc called a “train staff” was provided for each section of single line between the loop stations.

The driver of each train was required to carry this “train staff’ as his authority to enter that section of single track.

With the exception of Cheltenham, all platforms were on the ‘up’ side of the line. At Cheltenham the station was on the township side.

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Cheltenham Railway Station, Down or Township Side. c1920. Courtesy Betty Kuc.

The original building was erected in 1882 by Davis & Batty for the sum of £729 (about $1458 at the time) and still stands today. The Melbourne side of Cheltenham station was built in 1900 by F E Shillabeer, for £707.

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Cheltenham Railway Station – Up Side 1982. Courtesy Leader Collection.

The coming of the land boom in the mid 1880s favored the development of housing estates along the railway lines. This, along with the extensions beyond Frankston to Mornington and Stony Point, and the heavy seaside excursion traffic to Mordialloc, caused operating problems with the single line railway.

The answer was to duplicate the line between Caulfield and Mordialloc which was completed in December 1888, enabling a smooth flow of traffic in both directions.

Electric block telegraph instruments were installed at each station giving a ‘line occupied’ or ‘line clear’ signal, according to the position of the train.

These instruments were worked by the station staff who also controlled the signals at each station by hand and the driver of each train proceeded or stopped, according to the signal.

At that period, all level crossings were required to be protected by gates which were in charge of the gatekeeper who usually resided in an adjoining cottage.

This ritual is still carried out at the McDonald St level crossing at Mordialloc, but will disappear when the boom barriers come into operation later this year at both Parkdale and Mordialloc.

In 1924 the old manually operated gates at Charman Rd were replaced when a signal box was erected adjacent to the crossing and the signalman operated both gates and signals from this new position. The boom gates which now control this crossing were installed in 1972.

With the new colour light signalling system, just installed in recent months, departure and arrivals are controlled by the signalman in the station and the intermediate signals and boom barriers are controlled automatically by tract circuits operated by the trains as they pass along the line.

The introduction of the new systems also saw the end of the signal box at Mentone. Along with Carrum, Mentone was never provided with one of Tommy Bent’s ‘garden cottage’ station buildings.

Mentone station was called Beaumaris in the original contract for its construction, however it was known as Balcombe Rd from the day it began operating until September 1, 1882, when the work ‘road’ was dropped from its title.

It was renamed Mentone on January 7, 1884.

The section from Parkdale to Mordialloc is the last remaining of the old telegraph block signal system still in use, but is to be replaced during January and February this year.

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Signal box at Mentone Railway Station. c1960. Photographer: Paul Lemmon.


George Coote with research by Richard Gilbert.


  • This article first appeared in the Moorabbin Standard, January 15, 1986.

Article Cat. Did You Know?
Article Ref. 242

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