Britain’s oldest signal boxes

After 150 years of faithful service, the 1870-vintage North Eastern Railway signal box at Norton South signalled its last service on Friday (5 February 2021), and the network’s oldest working signal box closed to await its fate and likely demolition.

The final up service to pass the doomed box was Northern Rail 156475 at 22.47 with 2N58 from Carlisle to Middlesbrough, while an hour later the very last service to be signalled by Norton South was Class 60 60085 passing at 23.53 with 6N55, empty coal wagons from Drax Power Station to Tyne Coal Terminal.

Yet a century and a half after they were built there are still a number of signal boxes dating from the early 1870s that control 21st century rail services, including Bootle featured above and below, so this is a look at nine remarkable survivors that are all believed to date from 1871 and 1872.

Our first calling point, Bootle, is a request stop on the delightful Cumbrian Coast Line, where the Grade II-Listed signal box is a Furness Railway Type 1 design housing a 15-lever frame and controlling the adjacent level crossing (below) along with four semaphores, three of which can be seen in the photo. 

Top photo shows DRS 37401 “Mary Queen of Scots” leaving Bootle on 4 April 2017 with the 12.28 departure for Carlisle

Just 6½ miles north of Bootle another of the quartet of 1871 survivors is an identical Furness Railway Type 1 design at Drigg. It controls another level crossing and an access siding north of the station into the adjacent nuclear facility, though sadly no semaphore signals, so not one I have photographed.

Moving across to the north-east, the oldest surviving box on the charming route from York to Harrogate is Poppleton, a small wooden box with an 11-lever frame that dates from the early 1870s, but was refurbished and extended in 2007, while its former wooden level crossing gates (photo above) were replaced a couple of years ago.  Pictured below is Northern Rail 158792 departing Poppleton on 7 September 2019 with the 16.11 York-Leeds.

One other box to mention in the north-east is Heighington on the branch line to Bishop Auckland. This is an attractive and Grade II Listed North Eastern Railway box dating from 1872 and subsequently extended, but like Drigg it is also one I have not photographed, due to the lack of semaphores here.

The island of Anglesey remains an oasis of mechanical signalling, with four of its five surviving boxes controlling semaphores. One exception is the 1871-vintage gate box at Llanfair PG, as seen above, which stands just east of the station that boasts the longest name of any in Great Britain. 

Heading west towards Holyhead, the other Anglesey gate box is a real gem. This is the Grade II-Listed structure at Ty Croes (1872), pictured above, whose three semaphores include down distant TS1, one of only two remaining semaphore distant signals in North Wales.  

Another notable survivor that dates from 1872 is Grade II-Listed Tutbury Crossing on the North Staffordshire Line, as seen above from the platform of Tutbury & Hatton station, with 153319 approaching on 25 March 2017 on a Crewe-bound service and the giant Nestle plant in the background.

The Marches Line between Shrewsbury and Newport remains another outpost of both mechanical signalling and historic signal boxes, oldest of which are the two featured here and dating from 1872 at Dorrington and Marsh Brook, but other notable examples are Bromfield (1873) and those at Leominster and Woofferton Junction, both reckoned to date from 1875.

As can be seen in the photo above, one of the fascinating features at Dorrington is that northbound trains will pass an upper quadrant home signal and then a lower quadrant section signal, as seen here on 3 May 2018 where Arriva Trains Wales 175004 passes with the 09.46 Cwmbran to Holyhead.

Heading south from Dorrington, the next box is Marsh Brook, which stands at the site of a long-closed (June 1958) station and controls a quiet level crossing. Like its neighbour this is another London & North Western Railway/Great Western Railway joint design, with an 18-lever frame and home semaphore signals in each direction. 

Returning to the north-east, one of the finest boxes I have ever been lucky enough to visit is Prudhoe on the Tyne Valley Line, a North Eastern Railway design estimated to date from 1872, but extended in 1908, and one of the four remaining outposts of semaphore signalling between Carlisle and Newcastle.

Finally a box that will see its fortunes transformed if it survives the next few years, is North Seaton (photo below), a gate box thought to date from 1872 on the currently freight-only Blyth & Tyne route between Newcastle and Ashington, which should be re-opened to passenger services in 2024.

While most of these surviving boxes have undergone significant modernisation or extension since their original construction, their survival is nevertheless remarkable – it is hard to believe that any of the new Railway Operating Centres (ROCs) that are gradually taking control of our entire rail network will still be with us in the year 2171! 

Norton South SB 1870-2021 RIP. Northern Rail 156486 passes Norton South Junction on 26 August 2020 with 2N20 Newcastle (11.40)-Battersby

For details of the boxes featured above I have relied on the invaluable wisdom of the “Signalling Atlas and Signal Box Directory” (third edition, 2010). My book “Britain’s last mechanical signalling” (published in July 2019) is still available from publishers Pen & Sword and from many online retailers.