Token Exchange

When I was a youngster, back in the early 1950s, most of my train journeys were on Southern Electric trains. Perhaps the special journey we made was from Three Bridges to Tonbridge Wells. That was behind one of those rather scary hissing monsters, the steam engine (yes, I was scared of them back then) and most of the journey was on a single track railway – trains in both directions used the same set of lines.

My dad was always keen to point out the staff that was used as a permission to travel on this line. Dad told me there was only one staff for each section of line and that the engine driver had to have the staff to be allowed to travel the line. That way, two trains couldn’t meet head on and have a nasty smash because only one of them could have the staff.

At the end of a section, which would be at a station with twin tracks, the staff was either handed to a signal man or to the driver of a waiting train. A new staff was given to our driver for the next section of single track.

Some single track lines used discs which were kept in leather pouches with a big loop handle instead of the staff. These were easier to swap with a signalman without stopping the train. I was able to witness this happening on the lovely Kent and East Sussex Railway just last month.


Here we can see the Wittersham Road signal man leaning rather frighteningly over his balcony. In his right hand he holds the token for the section of track onwards which he has been given by the driver of the diesel train waiting in the platform. One of our train’s footplate crew is holding the token for the section we have been on and the signal man is about to receive that on his left arm whilst our footplate person will receive the next token.


All went correctly. Our train went down the line to the right and passed through the station without stopping. Meanwhile the signal man will have taken the token he received to the driver of the diesel so that he could head off down the line we have been on.

On our return journey, later in the day, the signal man is receiving a token but makes it clear he hasn’t yet got the one for the next line. His arm is held behind his back. Our train must stop and wait.


But when the other train arrives, an exchange of a rather leisurely nature takes place.


There’s only one person in the cab of a diesel so a brief stop is made.

Now I am a self-confessed railway enthusiast but it is these aspects of operation that interest me as much as locos and trains. I hope some of you find them interesting. These days’ manual systems like this aren’t needed. Token exchange may still occur on some main lines but sights like those I’ve shown here are very much part of the heritage railway scene.

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3 Responses to “Token Exchange”

  1. Pete Says:

    This sort of thing still happens at Crediton, or at least it did when I worked there 8 years ago, and I don’t think anything’s changed. There is a small signal box at the end of the platforms and as a train crosses the level crossing the guy gets out of the signal box and hands over the token. The line continues as double track as far as the junction to Okehampton, but in reality it’s two single track one-in-steam sections running parallel and there’s no further crossover between them. The single track section ends at a passing loop at Eggesford, near where my Mum now lives but I’ve never noticed what they do with tokens there – they must do something, although there is no signal box so I assume one driver hands it over directly to another.

    Already there is a summer-only service to Okehampton, and of course there’s only a short gap that would need to be reinstated for it to be an alternative to Dawlish, so perhaps in the future things might get upgraded.

  2. Chris COllins Says:

    Hi – I was excited to see the pictures of the token pouches. I am going to put a staff token pouch on display at Sevenoaks museum and would like permission to use the picture of the Wittersham Road signal man exchanging the pouch with the driver. This pouch and signals is from the Dunton Green to Westerham Railwa. Please can you tell me if you are ok for me to do this and to who I should give copyright for the picture – I can be contacted at – with grateful thanks

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