An island of semaphores in North Wales

Completion of a project to re-signal 50 miles of the North Wales Main Line in Spring 2018 means that anyone travelling along the coast by rail towards Holyhead will now wait until reaching the Isle of Anglesey before encountering any semaphore signalling.

Once on the island, though, there are four fascinating outposts of mechanical signalling along the final 19 miles of the route, including one of our oldest working signal boxes and one of only two working semaphore distant signals to survive in Wales.

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Semaphores on the Windermere branch

Along with the splendid Furness and Cumbrian Coast Lines, one other Lake District location to retain semaphore signalling is Burneside, the second of three intermediate stations on the ten-mile branch line from Oxenholme to Windermere.

While the single-track branch has no passing loops and operates on a “one engine in steam” basis, Burneside Higher Level Crossing, south-east of Burneside station, is protected by a pair of home signals controlled from a small frame across the road from the crossing keeper’s Portacabin accommodation. 

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Back to Barrow

Travelling by train to Millom on the Cumbrian Coast for the visit to Foxfield featured in my previous post gave me an excuse to spend a couple of hours on Tuesday, 4 May 2021 reacquainting myself with the fine collection of semaphores at Barrow-in-Furness. 

While new rolling stock in the shape of the CAF Class 195 units have appeared on services towards Lancaster and Manchester, the signalling infrastructure at Barrow remains happily unchanged and stuck in a delightful time warp. 

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Fantastic Foxfield

Time seems to stand still in signalling terms along the delightful Cumbrian Coast Line, a route that is our finest remaining outpost of semaphore signalling, but change is taking place at Foxfield, a location featured in my December 2020 post on working distant signals around Millom.

Paying a return visit to seek out a couple of photographic locations that I was unable to get to in December, I learn that the two Foxfield distant signals are being motorised, ending the heroic pulls signallers have had to make from the station’s 1879-vintage wooden signal box.

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Semaphore swansong in South Wales

Time is fast running out for the last two outposts of mechanical signalling on the South Wales Main Line, with planned re-signalling of 35 route miles from Swansea to Whitland by September 2023 spelling an end to the semaphores at Ferryside and at Pembrey & Burry Port. 

Paying a return visit to Pembrey on 30 April 2021, my aim was to find locations both east and west of the station from which to photograph the five remaining semaphores controlled by the former Pembrey East Signal Box.

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Day return to Helsby Junction

Almost four years after my last visit it is time to pay an overdue return to one of the most charming outposts of mechanical signalling in the North-West, at Helsby Junction in Cheshire, roughly mid-way between Warrington and Chester.

Since that June 2017 visit the semaphores have been replaced at nearby Frodsham Junction, as part of the Halton Curve revival, but Helsby remains an oasis of traditional signalling controlled by its Grade II-Listed London & North Western Railway signal box.

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Distant delights in North Staffordshire

Working semaphore distant signals have become a great rarity across the British rail network, as I have written many times, so after my successful December visit to west Cumbria it was time to revisit another area notable for its distant signals.

My only previous visit to the North Staffordshire Line (in March 2017) had taken me to Tutbury & Hatton, Scropton Crossing and Uttoxeter to photograph semaphore home signals at each location, but I had not had enough time to seek out the six working distant signals.

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Two notable Marches Line signal boxes

Among 14 signal boxes controlling the busy Marches Line between Shrewsbury and Newport, two of the finest and most historic survivors are identical LNWR/GW joint designs at Leominster and at nearby Woofferton Junction (seen above) both believed to date from 1875.

The Marches Line remains a charming outpost of mechanical signalling, and despite last year’s loss of semaphores at Tram Inn no less than ten of the route’s boxes control some semaphore signalling, including the neighbouring boxes at Leominster and Woofferton.

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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.

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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.

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