THE North of England’s rarest, best preserved and most historically important signal boxes have been given Grade II listed status as part of a project to safeguard the nation’s railway heritage.

The Department for Culture Media and Sport listings come as Network Rail replaces mechanical signal boxes with 12 regional signalling centres.

Shortly before the First World War signal box numbers peaked at about 13,000, of which fewer than 500 are still operated by Network Rail.

The five listed boxes in the North East and North Yorkshire come in a wide range of styles and many retain their original operating equipment and have become popular local landmarks, while others have been listed partly for their historical importance.

The box at Garsdale Head, near Hawes, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, was listed for its connection to the Hawes Junction disaster on Christmas Eve 1910, when signalman Alfred Sutton forgot about two light-engines on the line.

He cleared the signal for a Scottish Express train, resulting in the deaths of 12 passengers.

The tragedy prompted the widespread installation of track circuits, designed to alert signal men to the presence of trains on the main line.

The signal box at Norton East, in Stockton-on-Tees, was built in 1870 and was still operational up to 2012 making it one of the two oldest working boxes on the network. It has a later glazed extension to its operating floor, once a distinctive feature of many North Eastern Railway boxes.

The two-storey 1903 red brick box at Nunthorpe, near Middlesbrough, which features a gabled and hipped roof, a frame of 16 levers and a ship's wheel-style mechanism for opening the level crossing gates by hand.

The 165-year-old signal box at Marston Moor and the one at nearby Hammerton, near York, stand out because of their small size and lever frame at ground level, original timber windows and internal features.

Heritage Minister Ed Vaizey said: “Our interest in everything to do with trains and railways, and the ‘golden age’ of steam in particular, is one of our most endearing and enduring national preoccupations.

“Signal boxes are a big part of this, and so I am very pleased indeed to be able to list these lovely examples of the type.”