In only one month’s time – over the weekend of 24/25 March – a key stage in Network Rail’s £50m North Wales Railway Upgrade will see closure of five mechanical signal boxes, including the finest working box in Wales, at Rhyl.
Rhyl No 1 Box is one of a pair of Grade II listed boxes London & North Western Railway boxes that flank the station. Its larger cousin is the disused Rhyl no 2 Box at the western end of the station, which closed in 1990 and boasts a 126 lever frame that makes it comparable in size to Severn Bridge Junction Box at Shrewsbury.
The surviving No 1 Box at the eastern end of Rhyl station dates from 1900 and boasts a 90 lever frame, of which just 36 remain operational. Massive rationalisation of the track layout since closure of the No. 2 box has left just four semaphore arms – up home (RL88), up section signal (RL87) along with down starting signals RL11 (platform 2) and RL5 on the down fast line.
Evidence of the imminent re-signalling can be seen along the whole section of affected line, where newly-erected single aspect colour lights are shrouded in black bags, including new up signals on both the down platform line at Rhyl station and the down fast line, making both bi-directional for the first time.
Richard Evans, Network Rail’s Programme Manager tells me that the route will be closed after the passage of a Cardiff – Holyhead service, arriving into Rhyl at 23.30 on Friday, 23 March.
The line will then remain closed for the week-end, while the new equipment is put in to service – with control being taken over by the Railway Operating Centre at Cardiff – and remaining semaphores removed. Evans is confident that the route will re-open as planned in the early hours of Monday 26 March and says that the upgrade it will improve the route’s resilience and potentially pave the way for faster journeys.
One interesting feature aimed at improving reliability is the introduction of bi-directional signalling all the way from Flint to Rhyl.
Besides Rhyl, the other boxes to close next month are those at Holywell Junction, Talacre, Prestatyn and Abergele & Pensarn. A sixth box, Mostyn, closed earlier in the 18-month upgrade programme.
Network Rail’s New Measurement Train takes the down fast line at Rhyl on 22 February with a working from Derby to Holyhead, passing the magnificent Rhyl No.2 Signal Box
Remarkably three of the of the five doomed boxes – those at Abergele and Holywell Junction along with Rhyl, as well as the already-closed box at Mostyn – all enjoy Grade II listed status, so will be saved, but those at Talacre and Prestatyn are likely to be quickly swept away once the reusable equipment (already marked with green stickers) has been removed.
Of the 30 or so affected signallers, ten are taking early retirement, a number are relocating to places as far afield as Machynlleth and London, while Mark Pendlebury in Rhyl (pictured above) is calling time on his railway career and is emigrating to Los Angeles!
So from the end of next month the traveller looking for semaphore signals on a journey from London to Holyhead will still pass Beeston Castle & Tarporley between Crewe and Chester, but will not then see any mechanical signalling until on the island of Anglesey, where semaphores survive at Gaerwen, Ty Croes, Valley and Holyhead.
Virgin Voyager 221107 passes Rhyl No. 1 Signal Box on 22 February with the 12.52 Holyhead – London Euston
Diverging from the main line, there is also mechanical signalling at Deganwy and Llandudno, although these, and the Anglesey boxes, could disappear if – and it remains a big if – Network Rail presses ahead with a second phase of its upgrade programme.
I am extremely grateful to Bryony Parry from Network Rail’s media team in Cardiff for organising my visit on 23 February, to Programme Manager Richard Evans for his update and to Neil Bullimore, Mobile Operations Manager in Llandudno Junction for accompanying me.
For a farewell look at Abergele & Pensarn and Prestatyn Signal boxes, watch out for the second part of my North Wales signalling feature on 5 March.