Skegness signalbox by Phil Marsh

English Heritage gets 26 of the best from Network Rail

Published 05th August 2013

Signalboxes to be preserved as local landmarks

When Network Rail (NR) announced in late 2011 that they were embarking on a long term strategy of abolishing their mechanical signalboxes, many dating back over a century, there was a worry about more of our railway heritage vanishing. English Heritage decided to look at the proposals and have now come up with a list of 26 such signalboxes that will be listed and therefore preserved. The list was made after a survey of all UK signalboxes was made, including those on preserved railways.

Pre-rail signalboxes

Signalboxes date back to before the railways and were used in the Napoleonic Wars for hand signals using semaphores. Railway signalboxes were introduced as the amount of trains increased along with rail accidents. A method of controlling trains was needed and a signaller stood by the track doing just this.

But the hand flagged signals were not linked to points or crossings so accidents continued and interlocking was developed so conflicting operations could not be authorised. This brought the requirement for a hut or similar type of building to keep the signaller protected and the mechanical machinery clean and dry.

So from the 1840s signalboxes were gradually introduced and as designs improved they morphed into those that we can still see today, mainly off the main routes though. These comprise of an upper floor where the signaller works and has good visibility of the tracks with levers and interlocking visual aids (instruments) plus a lower floor with the mechanical interlocking rods etc.

Grand designs

Many designs were used by the many different railway companies and there was no standard design used except by a few companies. One thing was shared by all railway companies, their signalboxes at stations and level crossings had to be a statement of safety, functionality and aesthetically pleasing to passengers. Some were very ornate and could be describes as somewhat over the top, but the railways at that time used their buildings to make a statement about their strength and power.

Signalboxes came in many shapes and sizes, some over the railway, some alongside it and some on platforms. There were many different types of construction and finish used and those chosen for preservation have been given Grade II listed status by the Department for Culture Media and Sport as a result of this joint English Heritage and Network Rail project.

Only 5% left

At their peak 70 years ago, there were around 10,000 signalboxes but today, under 500 remain in use. English Heritage and Network Rail have worked together with The Signalling Record Society to identify and protect a representative sample of the most significant designs, especially where they form a part of a larger group of historic railway buildings.

New generation project

Network Rail forecast that demand for passenger and freight services is expected to double over the next 30 years and that to become more efficient, the remaining what they call ‘legacy equipped signalling locations’ will be modernised into just 12 operating centres such as at York, now under construction.

This will take up to 30 years to complete and once done will reduce delays as better technology means normal services can be restored much quicker following disruption. The new centres will also be more flexible and have a better capacity bringing more reliable performance and better train regulation to benefit all rail users. It will also save £250m a year when the project is complete.

Local landmarks

The selected signalboxes range geographically between Cornwall to Kent to North Yorkshire and span from the 1870s to the 1920s, many with their original operating equipment and are now local landmarks. Designs vary from imposing structures at Eastbourne to simple single-story timber buildings, as the small Grain Crossing box in Kent.

Hebden Bridge Signalbox dates from 1891 and is one of only a few Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway boxes to survive close to their ‘as built’ condition, and has a time warp feel about it and the nearby listed station buildings still retain their original 1914 signage.

The East of England boasts well preserved boxes built for the Great Eastern Railway like the one at Downham Market, which complements one of the most attractive small stations in East Anglia, and the wonderfully elaborate example at Brundall which was built in 1883 and unusually is built of wood blocks cut to resemble stone.

They said

Heritage Minister, Ed Vaizey said; “Our interest in everything to do with trains and railways - and the 'golden age' of steam in particular - is one of our most endearing and enduring national preoccupations. Signal boxes are a big part of this, and so I am very pleased indeed to be able to list these lovely examples of the type. It is greatly to Network Rail's credit that they have worked so constructively with English Heritage to bring this project to such a successful outcome.”

John Minnis, Senior Investigator at English Heritage said: "We are delighted to be working in partnership with Network Rail as part of our National Heritage Protection Plan to seek out the best examples of historic signal boxes up and down the country. These are very special buildings, at one time a familiar sight on our railway system. Today's listings will ensure that many of these highly distinctive designs, which were full of character, are protected for years to come providing a window into how railways were operated in the past."

Jerry Swift, Network Rail's head of community rail, said: "Our operating strategy would see a marked acceleration in the number of signal boxes decommissioned each year, so it is vital that we have plans in place to deal with that sensitively and sustainably.

"Identifying the most significant signal boxes so that they are safeguarded for future generations is something we are all committed to. It is important that they have a life after the national railway network has finished with them and we are working with a number of heritage organisations to try to find suitable homes for them for the future. It is great news that these newly listed boxes will survive as examples of our railway's colourful past as we modernise the network for the twenty-first century."

And the winners are…..

In the north:

Hebden Bridge, Calderdale, West Yorks, listed Grade II (May 2013)

Hensall, Selby, N Yorks, listed Grade II (April 2013)

In the west

Bournemouth West Junction, Poole, Dorset, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Lostwithiel, Restormel, Cornwall, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Marsh Brook, S Shrops, Shrops, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Par, Restormel, Cornwall, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Totnes, S Hams, Devon, listed Grade II (April 2013)

In the east

Brundall, Broadland, Norfolk, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Bury St Edmunds Yard, St Edmundsbury, Suffolk, listed Grade II (May 2013)

Downham Market, Kings Lynn and W Norfolk, Norfolk, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Skegness, E Lindsey, Lincs, listed Grade II (June 2013)

Thetford, Breckland, Norfolk, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Wainfleet, E Lindsey, Lincs, listed Grade II (June 2013)

Wymondham South Junction, S Norfolk, Norfolk, listed Grade II (May 2013)

In the south

Aylesford, Tonbridge and Malling, Kent (July 2013)

Canterbury East, Kent, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Cuxton, Medway, Kent, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Eastbourne, E Sussex, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Grain Crossing, Medway, Kent (July 2013)

Littlehampton, W Sussex, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Liverpool St, City of London, listed Grade II (April 2013) (owned by London Underground ltd, not an NR box)

Maidstone West, Maidstone, Kent (July 2013)

Rye, Rother, E Sussex (July 2013)

Shepherdswell, Dover, Kent, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Snodland, Tonbridge and Malling, Kent, listed Grade II (April 2013)

Wateringbury, Maidstone, Kent, listed Grade II (July 2013)

Written by Phil Marsh

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