THE last remaining signal boxes in East Lancashire, many of which date back to the late 19th century, are due to be mothballed.

Once the elevated cabins controlled the fates of trains rolling up and down the East Lancs and Clitheroe to Manchester lines, using a complex system of levers.

In more recent times, with the levers being mostly replaced by switches, the boxes have mainly overseen nearby level crossings.

But a major review by Network Rail has spelled the end for the rail curios, with 800 nationwide being replaced by 14 regional control centres.

Five across the area — Daisyfield, Huncoat, Brierfield, Horrocksford Junction in Clitheroe and Towneley in Burnley — are being decommissioned.

Rail campaigners said their closure would be the end of an era, although such a move had been expected for years.

Alan Benson, secretary of the Save The East Lancashire Line Association, said: “Years ago, when the heavy industrial uses stopped, they said that they were going to stopping running the signal boxes.

“But they never did and they used them to control the level crossings. I hope the people who work there can be given jobs locally but I don’t know where they might go.”

The earliest examples, dating back to 1873, are Daisyfield and Horrocksford Junction, just to the north of Clitheroe, which controlled the branch line to the nearby lime works.

Just three years later, also constructed by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, came Brierfield and Huncoat, close to the small line serving the village’s colliery.The signal box at Towneley, in Hufling Lane, served the nearby village and Towneley Hall, outlasting the station, which was axed in 1952.

A Network Rail spokesman said: “As part of our national operating strategy to modernise the national signalling system over the next 15 years, both Brierfield and Huncoat level crossing boxes on the Blackburn to Colne line will be closed in December of this year, and replaced by new automated level crossings.”

He confirmed the company was working to retrain or redeploy affected staff, in consultation with rail unions and Daisyfield, Towneley and Horrocksford Junction would al;so close s part of the strategy but at a later date.

A sign of the times

  • Originally, points and signals were operated from individual levers or handles by the track. Before long, it was realised that control should be concentrated into one building, which came to be known as a signal box.
  • The signal box provided a dry, climate controlled space for the complex interlocking mechanics and also the signalman. 
  • The first use of a signal box was by the London and Croydon Railway in 1844
  • With the development of electric power, the distance a single control point could operate from expanded from several hundred yards to several miles.
  • Further computer advancements have in many places removed the need for any human input.