The Great Eastern Railway might possibly be thought of as a poor relation of the companies that made up the London and North Eastern Railway – the home of Flying Scotsman, Mallard and the East Coast Main Line. The GER had humbler origins and was mainly concerned with secondary lines over sparsely populated parts of East Anglia with its fens and marshes. The two largest centres of population, Norwich and Ipswich are county towns of Norfolk and Suffolk respectively that have received full 25kV electrification, however most of the rest of the area has diesel traction and some mechanical signalling at the survey date covering 2003 to 2015, much less now.
The London terminus of the Great Eastern was Liverpool Street station where some of the most intensive suburban steam services in the world lasted until the 1950s unlike the Southern Railway which had electrified in the 1930s. Expresses had been handled by GER Claud Hamilton 4-4-0s, among others followed by LNER B12 and B17 4-6-0s. In later years LNER B1 and BR Standard Class 7 Pacific Britannia’s saw out steam. The class 31 or D5500 diesels were an early type identified with the area and a photograph exists of a new class member shunting goods wagons at Wisbech using a rope to change direction. Other diesels included classes, 47, 40, 37, 25 as well as rail-buses and railcars.
The poet Sir John Betjeman revelled in the bucolic main and branch lines isolation and peace and quiet but Dr. Richard Beeching, who had been tasked with making the railways pay, did not. However some of the branch lines survived and some of the main lines have the charm of branch lines anyway.
However a short film of a DMU Great Eastern journey is here:
The article is more concerned with the lesser lines where mechanical signalling survived well into the 21st century. East Anglia was the last place on the entire national network to have signal and level crossing gate lamps refilled with paraffin for illumination in 2013. Many level crossing gates were hand worked by the signaller although they were all interlocked with the signalling.
Another feature of East Anglia is the ‘Broads’ which are artificial waterways created by peat digging in the Middle Ages. There are three swing bridges carrying the railway over some of the Broads and these are only to be modernised this autumn 2022. The sailing boats that plied their trade along the Broads were known as ‘Wherries’ and it was for the masts of these vessels that the bridges swung open. The traffic now is of the leisure variety, some of which are masted, so the swing bridges still swing.
Freight traffic along these lines is still sparse and has never recovered from the time when coal had to be brought into the area and marshalled at March for distribution to the rest of East Anglia. The traffic in the reverse direction was mainly agricultural in nature together with some fish from Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Both of the last named places were seaside holiday resorts and summer saw excursion passenger trains from all over Britain.
All pictures by the author Allen Jackson except where indicated. Figure 1. A starting point Great Eastern journey is the map that shows the Great Northern Railway East Coast Main Line to the left with most of it to the right Great Eastern. Peterborough is a crossroads for East Anglia where line from the north, London, the Midlands and the East all meet. Across country the line proceeds east to March where the massive freight marshalling yard once was and now is home to a prison. The vestige of a yard exists for track maintenance traffic and often hosts a couple of class 66 freight locos. From there Ely has a massive medieval cathedral that acts as a beacon across the flat fenland and also another junction for Norwich and Cambridge both of which lead to London Liverpool Street. At the time of the book’s publication all the black dots represented live signal boxes. Figure 2. Whittlesea is an expanding small town near Peterborough and the actual place has changed its name to Whittlesey, presumably to avoid the mis-apprehension that the place is by the beach or the seaside when it is many miles to the North Sea. However with the station and signal box name it would require an Act of Parliament to change anything, including closure. The Class 170, 170 397 three car DMU is not stopping here on its way to Ely and the Great Eastern signal box of 1887 offers a clear way ahead. In the opposite direction past the station platforms is a set of road crossing gates operated by a separate person in their own hut but controlled by the Whittlesea signaller. April 2014. Figure 3. On to March now with the imposing March East Junction signal box, a GER product extended in 1897 but now with less levers following line closures in the 1960s. The view is from March station footbridge as Central Trains Turbostar, class 170, 170516 departs towards Ely. There are still some sidings at March; the up yard is in view, although the Whitemoor yard junction is behind the camera. The up yard had wagons and coaches stabled there, some from Transport for London. The next signal box at March South Junction is round the curve out of shot. March station is on the left and it still contained the etched glass announcement of a ‘First Class Passenger’s General Waiting Room’ for those who had that value ticket. October 2006. Figure 4. This picture is across the crossing towards Ely and towards March South Junction signal box which can just be seen on the far right on the curve. The goods shed on the right must have been for freight local to March as opposed to Whitemoor Yard. There is still a group of sidings and loops that form the down yard and the subsidiary armed signals control movements out of up and down yards. The distant signal is likely to be March South Junction’s as the boxes are so close to one another. The signaller will not be able to pull of the distant until the home signal to which it relates is also pulled off and that is the next main signal arm on the bracket along the line. Note that beneath the distant signal arm there is a colour light signal with the white cross on it. This symbol is to inform the train driver that the signal is not in use yet but change is coming. October 2006. Figure 5. The journey leaves Ely and goes eastwards to the North Sea and the holiday resort of Great Yarmouth via Norwich. The larger centres of Ely and Norwich have been fully modernised so we will not trouble them further. Some of the stations on the route are some of the least used on the network but, once again, would require an Act of Parliament for their closure. For example Shippea Hill station, pre-pandemic in 2019-2020, had 164 passengers for the entire year. Many of the signal boxes on this route were closed in 2012 and the manual crossing gates replaced by automated barriers. Figure 6. A station and crossing typical of the route was this at Lakenheath. The signaller operated the crossing gates by hand but the gate locks were interlocked with the signals. Typically, unlocked gates meant that the signals could not be pulled to ‘off’ or go and they could only be pulled off if the gates were locked against the road. This station fared a bit better than Shippea Hill for passengers in that it had 416 for the same year. RAF Lakenheath, which is the home of a United States Air Force base https://www.lakenheath.af.mil/ , takes the station’s name but the nearer station to the base is Brandon. Typically many of the stations were built without regard to the community it alleged to serve. Some stations and villages were three miles from each other. October 2006. Figure 7. Brundall is the junction for the double track lines to Lowestoft and the single track to Yarmouth Vauxhall station. Abellio Trains class 156, 156 409 pulls into the down platform past two semaphore signals headed for Norwich. The branch line to Acle and Great Yarmouth is on the left and whilst it appears to be double track, it soon declines into single track after the junction. Brundall signal box dates from 1883 and was built by the signalling contractor Stevens who did most of their work on the Southern Railway. Those of you who read the WE ARE RAILFANS article on the London and South Western Railway may recall Marchwood signal box which has a Stevens lever frame. From Brundall the line to Great Yarmouth was worked by Tokenless Block which was a single line system invented in the 1960s to speed up operation on single lines. April 2015. Figure 8. The seaside town of Great Yarmouth is not only famous as the home of Lord Nelson of Trafalgar fame but was a noted herring fishing port. After the railway came the fishing expanded and the town developed into a holiday destination. There are four platforms remaining plus a number of carriage sidings at the survey date. The station retains a release crossover to enable locomotive hauled trains to run round their coaches on arrival. The area to the right in the photo was the site of a locomotive depot in steam days and access to the freight facilities. The station and signal box (1884) are named Yarmouth Vauxhall to discriminate between the Great Eastern station and that of the Midland and Great Northern Railway who had the Yarmouth Beach station which closed in 1959. The M&GN Railway partly survives in preservation as the ‘Poppy Line’ in north Norfolk. April 2015. Figure 9. The lines from Great Yarmouth are both single track, one towards Acle and Norwich, the other to Reedham Junction and south towards Lowestoft and Ipswich. A departure from Yarmouth Vauxhall is signalled by the signal box not only by the semaphore signal but also by the illuminated caption or stencil box displaying the letter ‘R’ for Reedham Junction, A for Acle is the other choice. Abellio DMU 156 407 is the train heading south. As the station is on a curve one of the platforms has a treadle fitted that detects and locks the station release crossover as the signaller may not be able to see the train, particularly if the view is obscured by other vehicles. April 2015. Figure 10. South of Great Yarmouth is Reedham Junction that sees the lines from Norwich to Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth meet. Shortly after Reedham Junction is a swing bridge crossing the River Yare. The signal box dates from 1904 and has survived the closure of Reedham Junction signal box which closed in 2019. Reedham Swing Bridge just controls the opening and closing of the swing bridge which is opened 1300 times in a typical year. The red flag is a signal to shipping that the bridge can open if required. There are no other flags for any other conditions. June 2006. Figure 11. The red flag might be flying at Oulton Broad Swing Bridge indicating the bridge could open but it isn’t going to immediately with Anglia/Abellio class 170 273 gently gliding over the rickety structure. The signal box has already closed and the actual bridge mechanism is operated from the timber cabin in the centre of the bridge, clearly interlocked with signalling elsewhere. Oulton Broad Swing Bridge is on the line that runs south towards Ipswich and Felixstowe. June 2006.
Signalling and Signal Boxes along the GER Routes by Allen Jackson is available via Amberley Books: https://www.amberley-books.com/discover-books/amberley-series/transport-industry-series/signalling-and-signal-boxes-series/signalling-and-signal-boxes-along-the-ger-route.html
An overview of the Class 166 DMU as it enters 30 years of service across a number of routes.
Heritage railways provide the venues for most of today's 8F and Jubilee steam action.