Veteran signaller Alan Hayward has put up a commemorative sign reading 1896-2017 in one window and is already counting down the handful of shifts he still has to work in Poulton No 3 Signal Box before its final closure – and his early retirement – in less than two months’ time, on Saturday, 11 November.
Like four other remaining signal boxes on the 17.5-mile route from Preston to Blackpool North, the last of what were once five signal boxes at Poulton-le-Fylde will be swept away as the route is closed for its long-awaited electrification and re-signalling, a transformation set to take until at least next May to be completed.
Other signallers on the route are moving on – Carl Hunt in Blackpool North to the new Railway Operating Centre at Manchester that will take over signalling of the line when it re-opens next year and Mark Bradley at Carleton Crossing to Carnforth Station Junction – but after 13 years at Poulton, Alan has decided to call it a day and devote more time to his passion for bus preservation.
Poulton No. 3 is one of a trio of boxes on the line still controlling semaphore signals, but a look at its 74-lever frame is a reminder of how much rationalisation has taken place over the years, with just nine levers remaining operational.
Early stage work on the line upgrade saw a new and never used junction with the “mothballed” route to Fleetwood torn out in March and a junction signal onto it removed. Behind the box a semaphore home signal off the Fleetwood branch stands forlornly redundant among the encroaching brambles (pictured right).
It is the same story at Blackpool North No. 2, where early work on the upgrade project has seen eight platforms reduced to just four, with the loss earlier this year of platforms 1/2 and 7/8, meaning that just 28 of the 90 levers in the large 1896-vintage Lancashire & Yorkshire (L&Y) Railway box (pictured below) remain in use.
The box itself stands right on the line of what will be the realigned track, so shortly after 11 November it will go the way of the former No 1 and No 3 boxes, as a new station with six straight platforms emerges after what remains of the existing four platforms gets bulldozed away in the coming months. In truth, re-signalling of the Blackpool North branch is more than a little overdue, having first been anticipated when a large panel box at Preston was commissioned at the time of West Coast Main Line electrification in 1973. Space was provided in it for a panel to control signals on the Blackpool North branch, but somehow it never happened.
At Layton station, between Poulton and Blackpool, there is even the base of a never-installed colour light signal that would have replaced Carleton Crossing’s up distant signal at the end of platform one. Carleton Crossing is a diminutive 12-lever box standing mid-way between Poulton-le-Fylde and Layton stations, with just four operational levers – home and distant signals in each direction.
Today the boxes and signalling are life-expired and, sadly for those with a sense of history, none are scheduled for preservation.
Loss of the boxes at Blackpool North and Poulton (both 1896), Kirkham (1903) and Salwick (1889) will significantly reduce the number of surviving L&Y boxes on the national network. Paying a visit to three of the doomed boxes, it is hard not to feel nostalgic as another piece of our great signalling heritage gets shunted into the sidings of history.
My 22 September visit was kindly organised by Network Rail in connection with a book on Britain’s last mechanical signalling, to be published in late 2018. My grateful thanks for organising this visit go to Grete Luxbacher and Jonathan Cooke of Network Rail, to the three signallers I met and, especially, to my host Aidan Anderson, NR’s Relief Mobile Operations Manager in Preston.