Among surviving outposts of mechanical signalling in North East England, one of the most fascinating and photogenic is the 4½-mile section of line between Stockton-on-Tees and Billingham on the Durham Coast route from Thornaby to Sunderland and Newcastle.
Travel this section of line line and you will pass the two oldest signal boxes in Britain, Norton South and Norton East (both dating from 1870), along with two other fine and attractive survivals at Norton-on-Tees (built 1897) and at Billingham (1904).
Three of this four remain in daily use, while the Listed Norton East Box is normally “switched out” as there is no regular traffic on the north side of the triangle from here to Norton West – start of the diversionary Stillington Line to Ferryhill on the ECML – where a fifth box, Norton West, also sees only occasional use.
Visiting the boxes at Norton and Billingham makes for a fascinating day-out, with a fair bit of walking between the different locations, but well worth it to reach the most photogenic location of all, Norton-on-Tees.
On 18 August 2017, GBRf 66763 approaches Norton-on-Tees with a freight working from Drax Power Station to Tyne Coal Terminal
Here, a tall and impressive North Eastern Railway box stands at the site of a former station (closed March 1960), with its 26-lever frame controlling semaphores on the section between Billingham and Norton East, as well as level crossing barriers.
My August 2017 visit to this area began with a train journey to Thornaby, then an Arriva no. 15 bus to Roseworth – buses run every 8 minutes from a stop near the station and the journey takes about 25 minutes. Alighting at a stop in Ragpath Lane called Kiora Hall, it was only a short walk north over Junction Road and up Blakeston Lane to reach a level crossing and Norton West box.
With very little traffic on the Stillington Line, and nothing scheduled on the day of my visit, I quickly pressed on.
DB 66002 approaches Norton-on-Tees on 18 August 2017 with a service from Hartlepool BSC to Tees Yard
Returning to Junction Road and heading east brings you to a bridge over the west curve linking Norton West with Norton South. Having also made an unsuccessful detour to a foot crossing some way south of Norton South box, the this seems to be the best vantage point from which to see Britain’s oldest working box.
Norton South box stands on the west side of the junction it controls, some 300 yards south of the road bridge. An up home signal protects the west curve, with another just visible on the main route from Sunderland, converging from the left, but signals south of the box are both colour lights.
Setting off from this bridge, it is only a short walk to the joint oldest box, Norton East, by continuing along Junction Road then taking a left turn into Kew Gardens, from where a farm track leads to a crossing close to the box. Being routinely “switched out”, the boarded-up box is not very photogenic (it is Grade II listed).
A brisk 1½-mile walk from here – continuing along Junction Road once again then taking a left turn into Station Road shortly before a junction with the A1037 – brings you to the splendid box at Norton-on-Tees. There are a number of photo opportunities here, but best of all seems to be the panoramic view from a modern footbridge standing about 200 yards west of the level crossing.
As these photos show, there are excellent views east from here towards the box and level crossing and, looking westwards, to the junction at Norton East and its boarded-up box. Pictured above is 142068 passing under the footbridge on 18 August 2017 with a service from Nunthorpe to Hexham.
Reaching the final box on this fascinating stretch of line at Billingham is an 1.8-mile walk back to Junction Road then following the A1027 towards Billingham, over a junction with the A19 trunk road and another roundabout before taking a left turn into Station Road. Here another very impressive and tall North Eastern Railway box standing at the site of a former station – Billingham station has been re-located to a site three-quarters of a mile north-east of its original location and is a 15-minute walk away.
There have been suggestions in the past that these boxes are soon to be replaced, but according to information supplied to me by Network Rail in connection with my forthcoming book on Britain’s last mechanical signalling, this remarkable stretch of line will now be re-signalled during Control Period 6 (April 2019-April 2024).
Grand Central will mark the 10th anniversary of operations in December by standing down its HST fleet. On 18 August 2017 GC’s 12.28 from Sunderland to London King’s Cross approaches Norton East in the hands of power cars 43365/423