Snow and semaphores in North-East Scotland

There are now just four signal boxes remaining along the important 108¼-mile long route linking Aberdeen and Inverness in north-east Scotland, following a number of resignalling projects over recent years.

Most recent casualties in the march of progress have been the boxes at Forres and Elgin West in 2017, followed by those at Inverurie and Dyce in 2019, leaving the current quartet of mechanically-signalled locations at Keith, Huntly, Kennethmont and Insch.

158712 approaches signal KN19 on 7 March 2023 with 1A16 from Inverness (12.38) to Aberdeen

Having spent time at Keith and Huntly on a visit to the area in November 2019, it was time to pay a long overdue return to Insch, exactly six years after my only previous visit in March 2017, and also to take a first-ever look at remote Kennethmont, at the end of a 5½-mile section of double track running north-west from Insch.

158712 passes Kennethmont Signal Box and the Ardmore Distillery with 1A16 to Aberdeen

Insch station boasts an attractive 1886-vintage Great North of Scotland Railway (GNS) signal box with a 20-lever frame standing at the northern end of the up platform (2) close to a charming station building, whose former ticket hall has become the Insch Connection Museum, featuring local history and an historic model of the station.

Kennethmont station closed in May 1968 but has been beautifully preserved

At the time of my previous visit to Insch it had boasted a total of four semaphore arms, but down home signal IH2 was removed in summer 2019, to leave just up starter IH14 visible to the south of the station, with up home IH15 in view looking north from the station and platform and down starter IH3 out of sight beyond.

158712 approaches signal KN18 with 1A16 from Inverness (12.38) to Aberdeen

Besides wanting to try to get a shot of IH3 from the B9002 road, which runs close to the railway all the way from Insch to Kennethmont, I had also spotted a level crossing over the line just east of the former Kennethmont station and apparently well within sight of its quartet of semaphores.

43037/164 approach Kennethmont with 1H61 from Aberdeen (13.41) to Inverness

This level crossing is close to down home signal KN2, with up starting signal KN18 to the east, while looking west the signal box stands on the north-side of the line, opposite the Ardmore Distillery, with down starter KN3 not far beyond and up home signal KN19 in view at the end of the single line from Inverness. 

43037/164 pass KN2 on 7 March 2023 with 1H61 from Aberdeen (13.41) to Inverness

Kennethmont Signal Box is of a similar vintage to the one at Insch, dating from around 1888, and is a Railway Signal Company (RSC) building with an unusual hipped roof. Like Insch, it also boasts a 20-lever frame which, as at Insch, dates from singling of the line northwards towards Huntly in 1969.

158704 approaches Insch with 1A20 from Inverness (14.28) to Aberdeen

As I have noted before, one particularly intriguing feature of this section of route is a line of intact telegraph poles and wires along the north side of the line. I do not know of anywhere else on the entire UK rail network where telegraph wires remain, as they seem to do between Insch and Kennethmont. 

158711 passes signal IH3 on 7 March 2023 with 1H65 from Aberdeen (15.25) to Inverness

Weekday passenger services between Aberdeen and Inverness are largely operated by Class 158 and 170 units, with only the occasional appearance by an Inter7City HST set. Through services remain roughly two-hourly, with a number of shorter workings between Inverness and Elgin, and very regular services on the newly-doubled section between Inverurie and Aberdeen.

158714/708 are about to pass Insch on 8 March 2023 with an empty stock move to Huntly (5A62)

My return to the area was courtesy of a Scotrail Club 50 flat fare ticket, which cost just £15.00 return for the 164¼-mile, three hour, trip from Edinburgh Waverley. That meant the chance to travel from Edinburgh to Aberdeen and back aboard comfortable Inter7City HSTs, which now look certain to be the last HSTs to remain in service on the British rail network. 

170428 passes signal IH15 with 1A04 from Inverness (05.52) to Aberdeen

But just like the Class 67-powered Mark IV sets that operate services in Wales from Cardiff to Holyhead and Manchester, the Inter7City sets seem to get regularly replaced by Class 158 or 170 units on services they are scheduled to operate.

170428 passes signal IH14 with 1A04 from Inverness (05.52) to Aberdeen

On my two days at Insch I was lucky enough to see 43037/164 passing Kennethmont on Tuesday, 7 March 2023 with 1H61 from Aberdeen to Inverness, but my luck was out early the following morning when both 1H35 and 1A04 were formed by Class 170 units, despite both having been worked by the booked HSTs the previous day.

158718 arrives at snowy Insch with 1A06 from Inverness (07.01) to Aberdeen

While in the area I stayed at the cheap and cheerful Commercial Hotel in Insch, an easy eight minute walk from the station, where I paid £50 a night B&B, and for dinner enjoyed a decent chicken biriani from the adjoining curry house. A round-trip taxi from there to Kennethmont and back cost me £25.00.

43149/151 approach Aberdeen on 8 March 2023 with 1A75 (07.30) from Edinburgh Waverley
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