Temporary reprieve for Britain’s oldest working signal box

Delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic mean that a re-signalling project on Teesside due to be completed this month (September 2020) has slipped to early next year, granting a stay of execution to Britain’s oldest working signal box.

Re-signalling a 4½-mile stretch of the Durham Coast Line from north of Stockton-on-Tees to Billingham has been deferred until February 2021, according to information given to me by Network Rail, meaning another few months’ working life for the 1870-vintage box at Norton South.

Along with nearby Norton East, which is normally boarded up and switched out, this is the oldest working signal box on the national network, but only the East box currently enjoys Grade II listed status, ensuring its future preservation. 

The re-signalling project will not only spell closure for this pair, but also for little-used Norton West Signal Box on the diversionary Stillington Line to Ferryhill, and two superb examples of North Eastern Railway signal box design, at Norton-on-Tees (1897) and Billingham (1904).

Paying a visit to this area for the first time since August 2017, when I had taken the front cover photo for my signalling book at Norton-on-Tees, it struck me that this is almost certainly the biggest concentration of working distant signals mounted on the same post as a home signal.

156443 approaches Norton East with the 09.40 Newcastle-Nunthorpe

What was once commonplace on any main line railway is now a real rarity, particularly after so many were lost with the Gilberdyke-Brough re-signalling on Humberside in December 2018. There are none in Scotland, Wales or the South-West, and only isolated examples elsewhere. 

Among the few which spring to mind are those at Cattal, Marston Moor and Hessay on the York-Harrogate Line, Langham Junction (near Oakham), Parbold and Chapel Lane, Kirksanton and Limestone Hall on the Cumbrian Coast, a number on the Blyth & Tyne and, of course, the last working lower quadrant distant near Sutton Bridge Junction (Shrewsbury).       

GC 180105 at Norton-on-Tees with the 08.44 Sunderland-King’s Cross

Yet in the space of a couple of miles from just west of Norton West box to the east side of Norton-on-Tees box there are a total of six combined home and distant signals, two of them brackets carrying two pairs of signals at the west and east junctions on the Norton triangle, and all of them apparently working.

Looking west from the level crossing at Norton-on-Tees you will see an up train passing two pairs of home and distant signals, a sight you will not now see anywhere else in Great Britain. 

Spending a day in the area (26 August 2020) after my previous day’s visit to Nunthorpe, my aim was to capture more of this surviving signalling infrastructure before it is swept away in the name of progress and, hopefully, discover some new photo locations I had identified on my trusty OS map (93 Middlesbrough).

Beginning with an early morning train journey from Middlesbrough to Billingham, my first stop on a walk westwards to the boxes on the Norton triangle was Cowpan Lane over-bridge, where a seventh home and distant signal in this area (pictured above) controls access from Billingham Junction to the little used Seal Sands branch, the distant being controlled by the signal box at nearby Belasis Lane.

156471 approaches Billingham SB with the 08.31 Middlesbrough-Newcastle

From here a walk of about a mile took me to the overbridge on Wolviston Road, where there is a great view looking east of Billingham Signal Box, an attractive green footbridge and the down junction signals B37/34 alongside the box.

Crossing the dual carriageway and looking west the nearest semaphore is Billingham down outer home B38, with a view beyond to the semaphores at Norton-on-Tees. What also caught my eye was a foot crossing of the line just before it crosses the busy A19 trunk road.

156486 has just passed Norton-on-Tees with the 09.16 Nunthorpe-Newcastle

Getting to this crossing involved a slightly muddy walk through the pleasant and peaceful Billingham Beck Valley Country Park from an entrance on the west side of Wolviston Road just 100 yards south of the Bridge over the railway line.

156486 passes signal B38 with the 09.16 Nunthorpe-Newcastle

This foot crossing is close to the Norton-on-Tees up outer home signal NT8, a three aspect colour light and seemingly the only light controlled by that box. Beyond it there is a down section signal above the Billingham distant and up home signal NT4. Looking east there is a good view of B38 in front of the Wolviston Road Bridge.

66124 approaches signal NT4 with freight from Hartlepool BSC to Tees NY

After shots here of a Grand Central Class 180 and a couple of the ubiquitous Class 156 units that seem to have taken over the current Newcastle-Nunthorpe services, I retraced my steps back to Wolviston Road and made for Station Road and the level crossing alongside the splendid Norton-on-Tees Signal Box.

156482 at Norton-on-Tees with the 10.31 Middlesbrough-Newcastle

On my previous visit three years ago I had got some great shots from a modern footbridge 200 yards west of the level crossing, but a gate to it was sadly locked, so I settled for shots from the level crossing, where looking west towards Norton East there are two combined home and distant signals, the furthest also having arms to access the little-used north side of the Norton triangle.

A considerable amount of work has already taken place in preparation for the re-signalling, with contractors in evidence at most of the locations I visited and bases installed for new colour light signals, so it will not be long before these views will be consigned to history.  

156471 approaches Norton East with the 10.40 Newcastle-Nunthorpe

Moving on from here, my next call was a crossing close to the boarded up Norton East box, which is close to a modern galvanised steel  bracket controlling the east side of the Norton triangle. Looking west there are down home and distant signals protecting the north and east sides of the triangle, the latter obscured behind sighting boards. 

156443 passes Norton East with the 11.18 Nunthorpe-Newcastle

My final vantage point before catching an Arriva 15 bus back to Thornaby was a bridge on the B1274 road over the west side of the Norton triangle, on the little used Stillington Line, where looking south that is a fine view of Britain’s oldest working signal box and up home semaphores NS19 and NS20 on the two lines converging here, with colour lights beyond.

156471 passes Norton South with the 12.18 Nunthorpe-Newcastle

Besides the remarkable signalling around Norton, anyone tempted by a trip to Teesside should also consider a ride on the Tees Valley Line to Saltburn to see the magnificent former station building there, and to pass that most famous of least-used stations, the recently-closed Redcar British Steel.

A Grand Central Class 180 at Norton South with the 12.30 Sunderland-King’s Cross

Another must do is a trip down the delightful Esk Valley Line to Whitby, passing the semaphores at Nunthorpe featured in my previous blog, reversing at Battersby and then catching a glimpse of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway at Grosmont.

For a cheap and comfortable place to stay in Middlesbrough I can highly recommend the Premier Inn in Wilson Street, less than five minutes’ walk from the town’s impressive railway station.

UPDATE: Billingham, Norton-on-Tees and Norton South Signal Boxes all closed after the passage of the final service shortly before midnight on Friday, 5 February 2021. Norton West had closed and been demolished a week earlier (Saturday, 30 January 2021).

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