Time running out for the Grain semaphores

When I described the handful of mechanical signals at Deal as “Kent’s last semaphores” in a feature last month, a reader helpfully pointed out that there were actually two others in the county, at Grain on the freight-only branch from Hoo Junction to Thamesport. 

Discovering not only that their days were numbered, but also that the diminutive Grain Crossing Signal Box is a unique design that enjoys a Grade II Listing for its rarity, meant that it was high time to pay a first ever visit to the remarkable Isle of Grain.

Grain Level Crossing is a fascinating and remote spot that is an hour’s bus ride (Arriva 191 using a £5.60 Medway day ranger ticket) from Chatham station and close to the end of the 12-mile long railway from Hoo Junction on the North Kent Line, which has survived without passenger services for 60 years.

The citation for its Grade II Listing in July 2013 says Grain Crossing Signal Box is the only surviving example in the country of a Stevens & Sons signal box and says of its architectural interest that “unusually it is single storeyed above ground, the timber frame clad in Stevens & Sons trademark vertical boards with the joints covered by battens, but the locking room is below ground.” 

It was built by Stevens & Sons in 1882 for the South Eastern Railway and is also commended in its Listing for the degree of intactness, describing it as “externally intact except that the windows were replaced in the later twentieth century within their original openings; * Survival of operating equipment: it retains an operational South Eastern Railway lever frame of 9 levers, and a cast iron token machine.”

Stevens & Sons was founded in the 1820s as a gas engineering business, producing its first signals in 1841 and becoming the leading supplier of signalling equipment during the 1850s. A distinctive feature of Stevens’ signal boxes was vertical boarding, as seen at Grain Crossing. 

The simple box diagram – the down distant has been replaced by a board

After giving 140 years of faithful service, 2022 looks likely to see the final closure of Grain Crossing Signal Box, with Network Rail having announced in 2021 its intention to replace the last three manual level crossings in Kent – those at Chartham and Wye as well as Grain – during the coming year. 

666765 stands in Grain Old Station before reaching the crossing

However this is not the first time that the future of Grain Crossing Signal Box has been called into doubt. On 26 July 2010 the BBC reported that it could be replaced by automatic barriers following four incidents within three months of cars trying to speed past the gates as they were being manually closed. At that time Network Rail said it had installed CCTV cameras and increased fines for drivers flouting the law.

Grain’s down home signal (7) just west of the level crossing

Following the cessation of oil refining and cement manufacture on Grain, freight traffic using what was once known as the “Hundred of Hoo Railway” now comprises trainloads of ballast being transported from a Foster Yeoman aggregates terminal, after being shipped in from a quarry in Scotland, and freightliner services to and from Thamesport.

Alighting from a 191 bus at a stop appropriately called Grain Crossing, just west of the gates and signal box, the two semaphore stop signals can be seen each side of the crossing gates, with the signal box standing on the south-east side of the crossing.

The driver of 66765 stops to collect a key token from the Grain Crossing signaller

Taking a look at Real-time Trains it appears that there is a regular succession of freight workings at Grain Crossing, but what is timetabled and what actually runs on a given day seem to be two rather different things, if my experiences on 13/14 January 2022 are any guide.

Arriving at lunch-time on Thursday, 13 January there was no sign of any rail activity, although a number of trains appear to have run during the morning. So returning early the following day (Friday, 14 January) I was relieved, but rather disappointed, to be in time to see the only train that day – GBRf 66765 departing for Tonbridge West Yard at 10.00 – in dire lighting conditions! 

Nothing remains today of Grain Crossing Halt, a single wooden platform that stood opposite the signal box and closed on 11 June 1951, shortly before a more substantial station call Grain was opened a little further east. That new station enjoyed a very short working life before being closed when passenger services from Gravesend to Grain and Allhallows-on-Sea were withdrawn on 4 December 1961.

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