Plans to safeguard Britain’s railway signalling heritage are being drawn up as part of a thirty-year proposal to modernise and consolidate the activities of hundreds of signal boxes into regional control centres.
Network Rail’s operating strategy, announced in July, would see the signalling control of all trains on the network transferred to 14 rail operating centres, cutting more than £250m a year from the cost of Britain’s railway whilst improving capacity and performance.
It would mean more than 800 signal boxes currently in operation across England, Wales and Scotland becoming redundant, including around 40 which currently have listed building status in England alone.
Network Rail, the National Railway Museum, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and the Railway Heritage Trust met recently to discuss how these important pieces of railway history and the way of life associated with them can best be recorded and represented for future generations. It was agreed that a comprehensive review of all signal boxes would be carried out and a process put in place to identify boxes which are of particular historical significance and should be preserved.
Tom Higginson, Network Rail head of town planning, said: “Our operating strategy would see a huge acceleration in the number of signal boxes decommissioned each year, so it is vital that we have plans in place to deal with that sensitively and sustainably.
“Identifying the most significant signal boxes so that they are safeguarded for future generations is something we are all committed to – it is important that they have a life after the national railway network has finished with them.”
English Heritage is undertaking a review of all signal boxes in England as part of the National Heritage Protection Plan. This will also include those on heritage railways as well as boxes being used as work spaces, tea rooms, shops and studios.
Network Rail has also produced a list of its historic signal boxes, with help from the Signalling Record Society. The lists will be combined to produce a comprehensive record of all signal boxes in England, with similar work in Scotland and Wales to follow.
The National Railway Museum and Network Rail are working together to identify those boxes that have an important story to tell. In addition to the 40 operational signal boxes which have listed status, a further 40 non-operational boxes, situated both on and off the rail network, are also listed.
Tony Calladine, designation team leader at English Heritage, said: “There is great enthusiasm for our railway heritage and English Heritage recognises the importance of signalling and signal boxes in the history of our railways. We are therefore happy to be able to contribute to this important initiative.”
Elizabeth McCrone, head of listing at Historic Scotland, said: “We welcome Network Rail’s early engagement with us about these structures. Railway signal boxes are an important part of our national heritage, reflecting both social and engineering history. We will now look at carrying out a study of signal boxes across Scotland to ensure that the best examples are recognised through listing.”
Helen Ashby, head of knowledge and collections at the National Railway Museum, said: “Signal boxes are an important part of the railway infrastructure and its history. Many signal boxes have important people and historical stories that relate to them, therefore it’s important that we preserve not only the material evidence of the signal boxes, but also the stories associated with them.”
Cadw (the Welsh Government’s historic environment service) and the Heritage Railway Association were unable to attend the recent workshop but will play a role in the process in future.