£50m system upgrade puts Yorkshire steam age signal boxes out of service

It Is the end of the line for all but one of a series of steam-age signal boxes in East Yorkshire.

KEEPING TRAINS RUNNING: Vikki Smith at work in the signal box at Crabley Creek, near South Cave. PIC: Simon Hulme

With little fanfare earlier this month, a £50m project to update signalling was completed – and nine signal boxes on a stretch between Gilberdyke to Goole were taken out of service after over a century of use.

Down the nine-and-a-half mile stretch, which includes part of the longest straight section of railway in the country, the bells and clanking levers have fallen silent.

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They have been replaced by the state-of-the-art York Rail Operating Centre, where controllers can monitor thousands of trains from their computer screens – the railway equivalent of air traffic control. The signallers have been redeployed, or in some cases have retired, Network Rail says. There have been no compulsory redundancies.

Just one signal box – Crabley Creek and the oldest at 127 – remains in business, to serve Crabley Farm, isolated on the banks of the Humber, on the opposite side of the tracks. The deeds 
of the land specify that while there is a crossing, it must be manned.

Vikki Smith is one of a team of crossing keepers who open and close a set of wooden gates for the sheep and arable farmer, hopping out from her cosy cabin in her bright orange worksuit many times a day.

And the line, too, is surprisingly busy, with 15 to 20 trains an hour, and about to become even busier in the New Year.

A screech from an annunciator – rather than bells – signals that a train is coming and the crossing should not be opened.

This morning there has already been a tractor and a trailer across from the farm, two loads of straw and several vehicles. “We had sheep over yesterday,” said Ms Smith, who has worked for Network Rail for nine years, but is a newcomer to Crabley Creek. “It’s constant in the summer when it’s harvest. They don’t stop.”

Inside the box there is a kitchen, toilet and heaters – but while she is allowed a radio and books, an iPad or a TV is considered too distracting.

Ms Smith keeps her eyes fixed on a screen with a map of the line showing how far away the approaching trains are from Crabley Creek.

She said: “My job is to keep the trains running and not delay them and make sure it is safe.

“I am working alone. I love the views – it is my home-from-home.

“Nobody is actually telling me what to do – unless things go wrong.

“I think it is a great job but you have to like being on your own.”

The upgrade forms part of the Great North Rail Project, which has seen six signal boxes close in West Yorkshire this year, also transferring signalling to York.

Route managing director Rob McIntosh said: “Safety is our top priority and all these changes will create a safer, more modern and reliable railway for the commuters and economies we serve.”

IN 1948, there were some 10,000 signal boxes in the UK.

Now there are just 42 left in Yorkshire, according to Network Rail. And the number continues to drop, thanks to advances in electrical and electronic control systems and communications technology.

On the Gilberdyke-Goole stretch the Saltmarshe and Green Oak Goit boxes have been removed, while Welton, Brough East, Cave, Broomfleet, Oxmardyke have been boarded up.

Two others, Melton Lane and Gilberdyke Junction, are being kept as welfare facilities for railway workers.