Until late 2012, our line was still associated with Victorian signal boxes, semaphore signals and gated crossings but east of Ely all that changed as Network Rail implemented a £21m re-signalling project managed by Signalling Solutions from a base at Brandon. From December 2012 movements over the bulk of the Ely-Norwich route have been controlled by the signalling centre at Cambridge.
The signal boxes were replaced by lineside cabins (known as ‘islands’), the semaphores were replaced by LED signals and the crossing gates gave way to Automatic Full Barrier crossings monitored by obstacle detection equipment. There were some minor track rationalisation, notably the removal of seven little used crossovers which allow a train to move from one track to the other. At Brandon a new facing crossover was installed at the east end of the station which allows the Norwich bound platform to be bi-directional. At Thetford a new signal at the east end of Platform 2 permits a train from Norwich to terminate and then head back to Norwich without needing to use the other platform.
Sidings for future freight traffic remain connected at Eccles Road and in the yard at Brandon.
Nine signal boxes were closed, the oldest of which was the wooden structure at Wymondham South Junction (1877) and at the time of closure it was the oldest Great Eastern Railway ‘box still in use. The most recently built ‘box was at Brandon (1931). The re-signalling was implemented in two stages and not without some teething problems. The Ely-Thetford section was the first to go live in August 2012 involving the closure of signal boxes at Shippea Hill, Lakenheath, Brandon and Thetford. The new system was extended over the remaining section towards Norwich early in December with ‘boxes at Harling Road, Eccles Road, Attleborough, Spooner Row and Wymondham South Junction closing on the night of 30 November 2012.
Many other signal boxes have closed over the years. There was a ‘box at Eaton Crossing until 1965 and at Ketteringham until the late 1950s. Hethersett ‘box survived until 1987 when the level crossing at the former station was closed and signalling in the area and towards Norwich began to be controlled from Colchester.
Wymondham North Junction ‘box was abolished in 1963 by which time the branch line to Forncett had been reduced to no more than a long siding.
In a remote location between Harling Road and Thetford, Roudham Junction signal box was closed in 1965 – a year after the Beeching axe fell on the branch line to Swaffham. The ‘box was demolished but the brick base of its predecessor still stands, seemingly as a shed. Thetford West Junction – actually to the east of the station – marked the junction to Bury St Edmunds and closed in 1963. Deep in Thetford forest on the way to Brandon, Two Mile Bottom signal box was taken out of use in 1973. Finally, on the approach to Ely, Padnal box was destroyed by fire in 1989, 25 years after the goods siding there closed.
Will the nine boxes closed in 2012 be demolished? At least some of them look set to survive. Attleborough has been listed and English Heritage’s 2012 Research Report on signal boxes recommends listed status for the ‘boxes at Spooner Row and at Thetford. A picture of the latter is on the front of the report which says that consideration should be given to listed status ‘for the contribution to one of the finest surviving station complexes in East Anglia’. Wymondham South Junction may be acquired by the Mid-Norfolk Railway.
For those who hanker for nostalgia, traditional signal boxes still in use can be seen on the western end of our route at Kings Dyke, Manea, March, Three Horse Shoes and Whittlesea. March East Junction is already listed.