Twenty-six of England’s signal boxes have been given Grade II listed status by the Department for Culture Media and Sport.
Network Rail is decommissioning mechanical signal boxes to consolidate signalling into 12 regional centres. Says Heritage Minister, Ed Vaizey, ‘Our interest in everything to do with trains and railways…is one of our most endearing and enduring national preoccupations.
‘Signal boxes are a big part of this….It is greatly to Network Rail’s credit that they have worked so constructively with English Heritage to bring this project to such a successful outcome.’
Installed from the mid-19th century onwards, signal boxes numbered around 10,000 at the peak of their use in the 1940s. Today fewer than 500 are still in use by Network Rail.
Signal boxes were built in highly visible spots at stations or level crossings to an infinite variety of designs, sometimes with beautiful detailing and embellishment far beyond what is needed for practical purposes.
The boxes were constructed both by specialist contractors like Saxby & Farmer and individual railway companies, each developing their own distinctive style. Many still retain their original operating equipment and have become much loved local landmarks.
In the north of England, Hebden Bridge Signal Box built in 1891, one of only a handful of Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway boxes to survive in anything like original condition, has a time warp quality, where both it and nearby listed station buildings still retain their original 1914 signage.
The East of England boasts well preserved boxes built for the Great Eastern Railway like the one at Downham Market, which complements one of the most attractive small stations in East Anglia, and the wonderfully elaborate example at Brundall which was built in 1883 and unusually is built of wood blocks cut to resemble stone.
At Totnes in Devon, the large signal box, built to the Great Western Railway’s standard design used between 1896 and the 1920s, has what are in effect a series of bay windows to give the signalman a clear view down the line and striking contrasting blue brickwork.
With the removal of the original operating equipment, the building has now found a new use as a café. Totnes shows that, although there can be issues with access and location, decommissioned signal boxes can sometimes be rejuvenated. They have been reused as cafes, museums or holiday lets and, in some cases, moved to new locations, often on heritage railways.
Says John Minnis, Senior Investigator at English Heritage, ‘We are delighted to be working in partnership with Network Rail as part of our National Heritage Protection Plan to seek out the best examples of historic signal boxes up and down the country.
‘These are very special buildings, at one time a familiar sight on our railway system. Today’s listings will ensure that many of these highly distinctive designs, which were full of character, are protected for years to come providing a window into how railways were operated in the past.’