The final week of Teesside semaphores

Later this month a significant part of our signalling heritage will be lost when the handful of historic signal boxes around Norton-on-Tees close for the last time, as control of the Durham Coast line between Stockton and Billingham passes to the Railway Operating Centre (ROC) at York.

As I wrote following my second visit to the area last September, this short section of route includes the UK’s joint oldest working signal boxes, along with what is probably the finest collection of main line semaphores to survive anywhere on the national network.

While Norton East box enjoys Grade II listed status, despite its rather ramshackle appearance (below), that is not yet the case for its 1870-vintage sibling at Norton South, nor for the two magnificent North Eastern Railway (NER) boxes at Billingham and Norton-on-Tees, although I did recently sign a petition to save the latter and wish its promoter every success.

Having given up hope of being able to pay my final respects before their demise, scheduled for Saturday 6 February, what follows is a selection of images which I took in August 2017, showing how impressive are the doomed boxes and the semaphore signals which they currently control.

The top photo, which I also selected for the front cover of my signalling book, shows a Grand Central HST, formed by power cars 43365/423, approaching the mothballed box at Norton East on 18 August 2017 with the 12.28 Sunderland-Kings Cross service.

Two views of the fine NER box at Billingham show GC’s 12.53 Kings Cross-Sunderland passing on 18 August 2017 powered by 43467/468 (above), while the photo below shows GC 180907 approaching the box on the same day with the 15.18 Sunderland-Kings Cross.

Moving on to Norton-on-Tees, the photos above show DB 66002 nearing the signal box and level crossing with a working from Hartlepool BSC to Tees NY, then approaching Norton East, while in the view below GBRf 66763 has just passed Norton East with a freight working from Drax Power Station to Tyne Coal Terminal. 

Class 142 Pacers were a mainstay of local passenger services at the time of my 18 August 2017 visit, so the view above shows 142068 approaching Norton East Junction with a Hexham-Nunthorpe working, while the same unit is seen below approaching Norton-on-Tees with the return service.   

While most interest has focused on the two 1870 boxes at Norton South and Norton East, the third side of the railway triangle here was controlled by the 1910-vintage box at Norton West, seen above, which stood at the southern end of the little-used diversionary Stillington Line to Ferryhill on the ECML and was closed and almost immediately demolished on Sunday (31 January 2021).

Having not been lucky enough to be at the box at a time when any services were passing, I will break my rule of not illustrating signals without there being a train passing for these views from the level crossing at Norton West looking towards Ferryhill (above) and towards Norton East/South (below).

My book “Britain’s last mechanical signalling” (published in July 2019) is still available from publishers Pen & Sword and from many online retailers.