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Experience Birmingham’s Power Signal Box in VR

VR is being used to keep up Birmingham’s famed electrical signal box

One year after it dispatched its last locomotives through New Street station, a renowned Birmingham signal box may finally be visited in virtual reality (VR).

Network Rail gave the University of Birmingham unique access in September so they could take a close look inside the Power Signal Box (PSB) and record the data forever.

Numerous 360-degree panoramic images and three-dimensional laser scans were captured on two floors, which included the relay room and signalling panel.

These were then integrated to produce a fully interactive online model that is now accessible to everyone with an internet connection and compatible with virtual reality devices.

This was put online as a Christmas present for railway and architectural enthusiasts, ahead of the first anniversary of the signal box’s retirement.

The 1960s facility, in operation for 56 years, was critical to the smooth operation of tens of millions of trains.

Its team of dedicated signallers managed up to 1,200 trains a day at its peak.

That ended on Christmas Eve 2022 when the West Midlands Signalling Centre in east Birmingham, which took over management of all railway operations across Britain’s largest station beyond London, supplanted the terminal’s 1960s analogue equipment with electronic ones.

After working at Birmingham Power Signal Box for a while, John Korbes, Local Operations Manager, Network Rail, said, it was with sadness that they all said farewell to a building that served as essential to the efficient functioning of the national railway network. Its state-of-the-art equipment was installed while it was brand-new, and it remained dependable until the very end, transporting millions of people and tons of cargo throughout a sixty-year period.

According to him, nearly a year after that memorable day, he is pleased and delighted to say that the University of Birmingham team has managed to record the signal box nearly exactly as it was before it was shut off. They serve as a constant reminder of the significant part it performed in the beginnings of our railroad.

Emeritus professor of eXtended Realities at the University of Birmingham Bob Stone says it’s been a delight to digitise the New Street PSB before its historical contents were destroyed and lost forever. The effectiveness of this installation in safeguarding important national and regional railway heritage assets and creating a lasting legacy for both current and future generations is further demonstrated by the fact that, with the aid of sophisticated 3D scanning technology, such a complex installation could be captured in less than half an hour.

Presently, the building’s interior is being converted into a railway signaler training facility.

But the façade of the signal box is Grade II designated and will not be changed. Its powerfully sculptural shape and intense, remarkable architectural qualities led to its classification as an establishment in 1995.

It is regarded as one of Birmingham’s best surviving instances of brutalist architecture, which is distinguished by its imposing pre-cast concrete façade.

As it was the sole signal box to operate the Westpac Mk 1 signalling equipment until it shut down, its interior was very distinctive.

As part of the West Coast main line route modernization in the 1960s, four power signal boxes (PSBs) were built in the West Midlands, including the Birmingham PSB, to replace 64 manually operated signal boxes.

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