Listed places

8 Interesting Facts about Signal Boxes

1. In its familiar form, a raised structure with large windows enabling signalman to maintain a look-out, the signal box evolved in the early 1860s from huts and towers housing policeman.

Fig 1 Brighton North
One of the earliest Saxby & Farmer boxes, Brighton North, east Sussex, shown soon after completion in 1862. The operating room is raised high on timber posts and the signals extend high above the box

2. Signal boxes were an integral part of the ‘block’ system which was introduced gradually between the 1860s and the 1880s to ensure that there was an interval of space (or block) between trains running over the same length of track.

Fig 15 Keinton Mandeville
An early example of the widespread Great Western Railway type 7 design, Keinton Mandeville, Somerset, was built in 1905. This view shows the distinctive pattern of glazing, with three panes over two in each sash

3. The signal box as we know it today was the invention of the engineer John Saxby (1821 – 1913).

Fig 6  Brundall Signalbox 04-10-2007
Brundall, Norfolk, built 1883 and listed Grade II, is an example of the Great Eastern Railway’s highly ornamental type 3 design with its margin light glazing and timber blocks giving an effect of rustication

4. Signal boxes were seldom designed in matching style to adjacent railway stations. There were a few exceptions – an especially elaborate box at Wolferton, Norfolk (listed Grade II*) which served  Sandringham House and frequently saw Royal trains.

Wolferton low res
The elaborate box at Wolferton, Norfolk (listed Grade II*), erected by Great Eastern Railways, with tiled gables to match the station buildings.

5. A timber walkway or gallery supported on iron brackets was often provided below the operating room windows to enable them to be cleaned.

8754 Bury St Edmunds Signalbox 22 June 2006
A matching green walkway along the box at Bury St Edmunds Yard, Suffolk (listed Grade II)

6. Shrewsbury Severn Bridge Junction is the largest mechanical signal box still extant in Great Britain.

Fig 8 Severn Bridge Jn Signalbox 16-03-2011
Shrewsbury Severn Bridge (1903, listed Grade II) is constructed of the standardised components employed by the London & North Western Railway

7. By the 1900s, power operation did away with the need for large manual levers but, for cost reasons, new power boxes only gradually took over on the busiest lines. In 1948, British Railways still had over 10,000 mechanical boxes.

Fig 3 Berwick SB Lever Frame 16-08-2012
The interior of a small Saxby & Farmer type 5 signl box, one of many built for the London Brighton & South Coast Railway. Like most boxes today, the equipment is a mix of 19th century and modern technology

8. The end of the signal box; advances in signalling technology resulted in a plan in 2011 to concentrate signalling to 12 signalling centres over a 30 year period, with 80% of boxes closing in 15 years.

Fig 21 Birmingham New Street Signalbox 2006-06-14
Birmingham New Street, the one post-war box to be listed (at Grade II), built in 1964-6, architects Bicknell & Hamilton. Its sculptural qualities and fine detailing lift it far above the norm for these structures

As part of the National Heritage Protection Plan’s Transport and Communications Activity we selected 53 signal boxes for assessment for designation from the remaining 500 Network Rail boxes, and 48 of these have now been listed.

The project ensures that all signal boxes which deserve protection on a national scale and which are not on a preserved line, will have been designated and can be appropriately managed through the planning process. It is not anticipated that other boxes currently in Network Rail ownership will be added to the list unless significant new information about their interest comes to light.

If you would like to know more about this part of our heritage, a good place to start is this short introduction to the history and typology of railway signal boxes, which is intended to support the listing selection guide on Transport Buildings.

Further Reading: 2015-01-09 11-45-25

Free download: Introduction to Heritage Assets: Signal Boxes

3 comments on “8 Interesting Facts about Signal Boxes

  1. Oakham signal box was used by Hornby (model 4005) as their basic signal box.

  2. If my memory serves me correctly, Hornby inherited that model from Tri-ang Railways which in turn was originally Lines Brothers! I was brought up on Tri-ang/Lines in the ’50’s and had that model.

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