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Short stories from the history of Britain's railways 


Cragellachie Station opened in 1863 - 22 years before the last spike was driven in 1875 at Craigellachie in British Colombia to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway across Canada.

Named after the birthplace of George |Stephen,Chairman of CPR - it prompts me to wonder if he saw the opening of the Strathspey Railway in 1863!

By Frank Peterson.

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It’s an iconic photograph, though you may not know it. It shows a large group of men gathered in a clearing in the forest, watching a be-whiskered gentleman with a large hammer drive a spike into the railway sleeper in front of him. He bends it, of course, so someone produces another and he drives that in while the first is headed for a museum somewhere. The last spike.

The clearing is on the western slopes of the Canadian Rockies, below the Great Divide and near the small hamlet of Craigellachie. The whiskered man is Donald A Smith, a board member for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and it is his task to link together the western and eastern stretches of the new railroad to complete the trans-continental link. It is 09 22 on November 7th 1885, and freezing. Canada is united. It was a close run thing, though. British Columbia had threatened to join the USA if communications to the east weren’t improved. Something had to be done.

They are a disparate group, but all mutton chop whiskers, bowler hats, string ties, watching Smith drive that last spike. I can just make out Major A B Rogers, for example, in charge of the surveying team that criss crossed the Rockies on horse back for a few exhausting years until they found a route through the Selkirk mountains. After they had found their route, Rogers and his men gathered to camp on the Great Divide and drank a toast to their achievement. They made the ‘pledge of twenty’, that all twenty would stay in touch until the end of their days. The final letter between the last two was posted from a flop house in Seattle in 1921.

If the building of the Canadian Pacific seemed a political deed, go and stand by the tracks at Field or Golden, where the east bound freights from Vancouver and Burnaby, wait their turn to climb through the circular tunnels to the summit and from there, downhill to Banff and Calgary. The ground trembles as three power units start forward, moving a train more than four kilometres long. There are mostly flatbeds with up to four containers on each one, some with refrigeration powered by the train units. There’s usually a fourth unit coupled in the centre, passing with a roar, as wagon after wagon rumbles by. This is vital for Canada, more vital than ever Smith or his colleagues could have imagined. This is Canada’s lifeline to the Pacific, even today, carrying minerals and cereals west to the Pacific and Asia, and imports the other way.

Did Britain ever have a last spike? I think not. Linking England with Scotland in 1848 the Caledonian Railway was a comparatively low key affair. Nothing really at the border near the Solway Firth or the summit at Beattock. No different on the east coast except that, there, it was a river crossing. Economically, the Anglo-Scottish route mattered but it was politically more important too.

For much of the first half of the nineteenth century the establishment had been jittery over the prospect of a revolution in Britain. The French had started it in 1789. Then there was that ‘close run thing’ with Napoleon in 1815, and then suppression – Peterloo in 1819, the Captain Swing movement of the 1830’s and finally the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

The railway was handy – as a way of symbolically uniting the British Isles and as a way of getting troops around quickly if needed. The Caledonian Railway would have been handy in the Jacobite Rebellion, back in 1745.

This isn’t a history essay though, Canadian or British, but a reminder of some great and symbolic events in the history of railways, and of how they united countries and moved the previously unmoveable. And along the way, they created some terrific impressions of ‘big trains’.

So, collect your rental car at Jasper station, high in the Rockies on the alternative Canadian National route. Turn left and left again, heading for the south. Too late! The barriers come down across the road, red lights flash. Better turn of the car engine and turn on the radio – or perhaps ponder what railways still mean to many. It will be a long wait. A westbound freight is pulling out of Jasper yard. The car vibrates as the power units pass, the road rumbles. And then what seems like miles of freight pass slowly onto the main line.

I think, as the flatbeds pass, I think of a woman I met at Banff a few days before. I asked her what she thought of the Canadian Pacific. ‘Well. I put my finger on the rail and then I feel I’m joined to the rest of Canada,’ she said with a smile.

And, by the way, you can put your finger on the rail in the Canadian west (looking first of course) since part of the tracks are not fenced, a symbolic point for some. But that’s another story (and don’t try the finger test at home). The story of ‘The Last Spike’ is told in a book of the same name by Pierre Berton (1971).

Pictures: Wikipedia.


By John Swanwick.

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Operative from:

04.18 hrs on WEDNESDAY 10th FEBRUARY 2021

This project affected the lines between Stockton and Sunderland South Junction, also between Norton South and Ferryhill South Junction, including Norton West to Norton East, Billingham to Seal Sands Storage, Seaton-on-Tees Branch, and Ryhope Grange to Hendon.

Nine signal boxes were closed when lineside signalling was replaced between Norton South Junction and Greatham, and signalling between Greatham and Ryhope Grange (also between Norton on Tees East Jnc and Ferryhill Jnc) was re-controlled to a new Hartlepool Workstation at York ROC.

The Hartlepool Workstation fringes to Tyneside IECC at Ryhope Grange and Ferryhill Jnc; the fringe between Norton South Junction and Stockton is to the Bowesfield Workstation at York ROC.

Apart from Hall Dene where CCTV was retained, most other level crossings were converted to MCB-OD operation controlled from York ROC (Hartlepool workstation).

The closed signal boxes were as follows:-


Ryhope Grange SB was built to the NER N3 design, and opened in 1905 when it had a 70 lever McKenzie & Holland frame. That frame was replaced in 1951 by a No.17 pattern frame, also of 70 levers, but later reduced to 40 levers.

In November 2010 a Workstation was installed to control the line through to Greatham, when the frame was further reduced by removal of levers 1 &2.

The signal box was closed at 01.45 hrs on 06 February 2021.

Belasis Lane SB was built by the LNER to the NER S4 design, replacing an earlier level crossing box in 1929 when it was fitted with a 25 lever McKenzie & Holland frame. That frame was retained until closure at 00.45 hrs on 24 January 2021.

As part of the resignalling project, Stop Boards were installed at Belasis Lane and No Signaller Token (Remote) working introduced to Phillips Siding Ground Frame; the remaining running line beyond Phillips Siding Ground Frame was re-designated as North Tees Siding. Haverton Hill East Grid Sidings were recovered.


Norton-on-Tees SB was rebuilt, probably from an earlier structure, to the NER C2 design, and opened in 1897. It was fitted with a replacement 26 lever McKenzie &Holland No.16 pattern frame in 1957 which remained in use until the box closed at 01.35 hrs on 6 February 2021.


Norton East SB was built to an NER non-standard design, and opened in 1870, so it was one of the oldest operational boxes on Network Rail when it closed at 01.39 hrs on 6 February 2021. It was extended in 1899 and fitted with a Stevens frame, and finally fitted with a replacement 25 lever McKenzie &Holland No.17 pattern reconditioned frame in 1959.


Norton South SB was built to an NER non-standard design and, like Norton East, opened in 1870. It was fitted with a new lever frame in 1895, which was in turn replaced by a 20 lever McKenzie &Holland No.17 pattern reconditioned frame in 1955. It closed at 01.38 hrs on 6 February 2021


Norton West SB was built to the NER S4 design, and opened in 1921, replacing an earlier SB at the Junction and a gate box at the level crossing. The 41 lever McKenzie &Holland No.16 pattern frame dated from the box opening in 1921.

Equipment was decommissioned at 11.39 hrs and the box officially closed at 13.36 hrs on Saturday 30 January 2021.


Ferryhill SB was built by BR to the LNER No.13 design, and opened in 1954 as Ferryhill No.2 SB, replacing an earlier NER signal box. The 45-lever mechanical frame was replaced by an IFS panel in 1971, when the other SBs at Ferryhill also closed.

In May 1992, control of the ECML from Tyneside IECC was extended to just north of Northallerton; Ferryhill SB ceased to signal the Main Line but was retained as a temporary measure to control the Stillington lines to and from Norton West which were worked by Absolute Block. It closed at 13.40 hrs on 30 January 2021.


FARSAP is the "Film Archive of Railway Signalling and People".

With support from Network Rail, the FARSAP Project is recording signalling which is being transferred to the ROCs.

Films of all 4 Norton boxes can be seen on the FARSAP web-site here

Richard Pulleyn

Deputy Director, FARSAP Project

Friends of the National Railway Museum


29 April 2021

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