IT WILL be all change on the Cotswold Line tomorrow night as the next phase of the Oxford to Worcester Rail route’s transformation gets under way.

The passage of the last trains of the day will be marked in Ascott-under-Wychwood signalbox by the ringing of gleaming brass bells and the final few movements of the large levers which control the signals and points outside.

The line will then close for the next nine days between Oxford and Kingham for the commissioning of four miles of new double track from Ascott to Charlbury as part of the £67m modernisation project.

The next time a passenger train speeds by on Monday, June 6, the signalbox, opened in 1883 by the Great Western Railway, will have been catapulted from the Victorian age into the 21st century.

In place of the levers there will be a push-button digital panel, giving the box control of the line from Kingham to Oxford’s outskirts.

Ivan Johnson, a Network Rail deputy local operations manager based in Worcester, who supervises the signalboxes on the line, said: “It’s not as nice as a lever frame, but that’s how the modern railway is. They have used a similar system at Oxford for quite a while.

“It will show us exactly where a train is anywhere on the line from the edge of Oxford as far as Kingham, indicated by lights moving along the panel.”

One thing that will not change is the team who staff the signalbox and take pride in keeping it spotless inside, nor their dedication to the job and to the passengers who use the railway.

Mr Johnson adds: “It’s your home for each eight-hour shift, as you’re not allowed to move from the box, so you treat it the same as you would your home.”

And there are a few items from a modern home that their Victorian forebears might have envied, including a cooker and fridge, but with the room dominated by the lever frame and a shelf of signal equipment, there’s no doubt this is a place of work.

In its elevated position, looking out over a level crossing and the village’s station, it feels like a ship’s bridge, a theme echoed by duty signaller Gerry Kane, who said: “The job is like being a watch-keeper on board a ship.”

And the signallers have to keep a lonely vigil much of the time.

Although the station is so close, just one train a day each way calls, so passengers are thin on the ground, but the small band of regulars who board the 7.44am to Oxford get VIP treatment from the signallers, with a phone call to warn them if there is major disruption, or a cup of tea if the train is held up on a chilly morning, a service set to survive into the digital age.

  • For details of replacement buses at west Oxfordshire stations and trains from Kingham to Worcester from Saturday until June 5, see the First Great Western website