Nostalgia: End of the line for Britain’s signal boxes

Those that remain are sentries of a bygone age of transport, in which railway workers pulled at mechanical levers to signal to drivers that it was safe to move.

5th May 1926:  A volunteer pulling the signal for an incoming train at Scarborough during the Great Strike.  (Photo by Edward G. Malindine/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
5th May 1926: A volunteer pulling the signal for an incoming train at Scarborough during the Great Strike. (Photo by Edward G. Malindine/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

They have long been replaced by safer and more modern apparatus, but as these archive pictures demonstrate, the trackside signal box is a uniquely enduring image of Britain in the early 20th century.

The familiar raised wooden structures actually date from around 1860, when they evolved from the huts and towers formerly used by policemen, and from the semaphore towers erected during the Napoleonic Wars. Before their widespread adoption, trains were kept apart only by predetermined intervals of time and distance.

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The boxes had two storeys. Upstairs was the operating room, with a view over the track and a bank of levers which controlled not only the mechanical flags but also the points on the railway track. The two were closely interlocked, making it impossible, in theory, for the points to be set without the appropriate signal also being in place.

September 1919: A railway inspector at work as a signalman during the strike. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Below was the “locking room”, from which the rods and wires that controlled the points were fed through a gap in the front wall.

In an era before nationalisation, the installation process was fiercely competitive, with rival companies producing different systems and frequently engaging each other in legal disputes.

By the end of the war, there were some 10,000 mechanical signal boxes in operation. But as steam gave way to diesel, electric lights began to replace the mechanical flags and power boxes covering wide areas took the place of individual controllers, the number dropped precipitously. By 1970, only 4,000 remained and perhaps a tenth of that number today. Within the next two decades, the last will have been removed from active service on the public main lines.

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13th January 1925: Signalman Roberts of Liverpool Street Station, London, synchronising the clocks which send the time out to all the signal boxes. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
circa 1935: A signalman watches a steam train travel down a track. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
August 1923: A mirror helps the signalman looking down the old Great Eastern line from Stratford Central station. The view from the signalbox was obscured by the waiting room roof and chimney stacks. The Channelsea curve is on the right, giving connections to the North London Railway at Victoria Park, and the Cambridge main line near Loughton Branch Junction. The N7 0-8-2T reflected in the mirror is one of those built at Stratford to AJ Hill's design, while in the background a B12 4-5-0 and a tank engine - possibly a J69 0-6-0T - stand alongside trains of very mixed empty stock. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
22nd May 1936: The signalman at Ambergate in Derbyshire, where a triangular junction joining London, Manchester and Chesterfield keeps him busy. (Photo by E. Dean/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
June 1921: Signalman Beatty at work in one of London's many Railway signal boxes. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
10th February 1938: S E Culpin, a signalman at Wolverton, Norfolk (station for Sandringham, a royal residence) has filled the signal box with geraniums (pelagoniums). (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
3rd October 1952: Signalman in a new signal box at Euston station, London studies a diagram of the lines approaching the station. (Photo by Harold Clements/Express/Getty Images)